Outsourcing Our Humanity

You may not have noticed, but we are in the midst of a robot revolution.

Robots have been around for a long time in an industrial setting and now they’re ready to join us in our homes. Should we welcome them in or do they pose an existential threat?

These were some of the questions raised during the 2015 Websummit in Dublin. Several robotics experts and companies were on hand to explain and discuss current trends and issues. It was Nell Watson, of Singularity University, who made the robot revolution claim, based on the growth and availability of an unprecedented amount of data.

In factories, robots are being released from cages and interacting more closely with their human co-workers; Yumi from Swiss power & automation company ABB is a prime example. The robot is taught, rather than programmed and, eventually, robots will teach themselves and each other.

Meanwhile, in the home, reality is catching up with science fiction. Siri is not quite our disembodied virtual friend, but in South Korea and China “chatbots” are providing simulated relationships to millions of people. Mattel has launched “Hello Barbie“, a doll that can understand its owner and interact with them. The conversations are uploaded to the cloud, allowing the collective knowledge of the Barbie hive-mind to grow, allowing for more realistic discourse. And there’s fun for all the family with Jibo and Pepper, billed as the first humanoid robot designed to live with humans. Pepper made an appearance at Websummit and seemed to come in peace.

And it should come as no surprise that the sex industry, always at the forefront of hi-tech in the search for, er, deeper market penetration, is already oiling up the sexbots.

The advent of mass android immigration raises some profound questions, some of which were debated during Websummit. For example, the ultimate aim of automation and robotics in industry is to liberate humans from boring, dangerous and repetitive jobs. Whilst disruption has hitherto led to the creation of new employment opportunities, there is a growing consensus that many more of us will have to find new ways to fill our time as the work dries up.

In the home, many will doubtless feel comfortable with the use of “slave” robots taking on menial tasks but if we see a growing demand for increasingly realistic, responsive and intelligent companion robots that can simulate emotion and empathy, what are the rules of engagement? Can we treat them any way we want? Is it right for our children to pour out their fears, hopes and dreams to a Hello Barbie (who may be better equipped to come up with the right answer than their parents) ?

There are those who fear that this is all very wrong. That we are losing our ability to interact with each other and risk losing our very humanity in the process. I don’t think so. Social networks and other online tools have been a huge boon for the many millions of lonely, isolated and socially awkward people who can find and communicate with others in a way that was impossible before the internet. Of course, they can also facilitate dark, destructive desires but I’m convinced the good they can do far outweighs the perils. However, whatever view one takes, the technology is here and the robots are coming.

In the past, I have tended to agree with those who think AI research will hasten our obsolescence and guarantee our demise, as machines assimilate and organise the huge mass of global data, learning and evolving at an exponential rate to ascend to an intelligence far beyond anything we can comprehend. But I now believe that an ever-closer connection between robots and humans is more likely.

The former will be ascribed more human characteristics to help us to feel more at ease in their company whilst the latter will have access to more “upgrades”, including brain enhancers and bionic add-ons; both will have instant access to the world’s (ever increasing) data.

The difficulty will be telling them apart.