Tag Archives: anthropomorphism

The Moral Hazards and Legal Conundrums of Our Robot-Filled Future | Science | WIRED

The Moral Hazards and Legal Conundrums of Our Robot-Filled Future | Science | WIRED.

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Whether you find it exhilarating or terrifying (or both), progress in robotics and related fields like AI is raising new ethical quandaries and challenging legal codes that were created for a world in which a sharp line separates man from machine. Last week, roboticists, legal scholars, and other experts met at the University of California, Berkeley law school to talk through some of the social, moral, and legal hazards that are likely to arise as that line starts to blur.

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We May Have Feelings for Robots

Darling studies the attachments people form with robots. “There’s evidence that people respond very strongly to robots that are designed to be lifelike,” she said. “We tend to project onto them and anthropomorphize them.”

Most of the evidence for this so far is anecdotal. Darling’s ex-boyfriend, for example, named his Roomba and would feel bad for it when it got stuck under the couch. She’s trying to study human empathy for robots in a more systematic way. In one ongoing study she’s investigating how people react when they’re asked to “hurt” or “kill” a robot by hitting it with various objects. Preliminary evidence suggests they don’t like it one bit.

Another study by Julie Carpenter, a University of Washington graduate student, found that soldiers develop attachments to the robots they use to detect and defuse roadside bombs and other weapons. In interviews with service members, Carpenter found that in some cases they named their robots, ascribed personality traits to them, and felt angry or even sad when their robot got blown up in the line of duty.

This emerging field of research has implications for robot design, Darling says. If you’re building a robot to help take care of elderly people, for example, you might want to foster a deep sense of engagement. But if you’re building a robot for military use, you wouldn’t want the humans to get so attached that they risk their own lives.

There might also be more profound implications. In a 2012 paper, Darling considers the possibility of robot rights. She admits it’s a provocative proposition, but notes that some arguments for animal rights focus not on the animals’ ability to experience pain and anguish but on the effect that cruelty to animals has on humans. If research supports the idea that abusing robots makes people more abusive towards people, it might be a good idea to have legal protections for social robots, Darling says.

Robots Will Have Sex With Us

Robotics is taking sex toys to a new level, and that raises some interesting issues, ranging from the appropriateness of human-robot marriages to using robots to replace prostitutes or spice up the sex lives of the elderly. Some of the most provocative questions involve child-like sex robots. Arkin, the Georgia Tech roboticist, thinks it’s worth investigating whether they could be used to rehabilitate sex offenders.

“We have a problem with pedophilia in society,” Arkin said. “What do we do with these people after they get out of prison? There are very high recidivism rates.” If convicted sex offenders were “prescribed” a child-like sex robot, much like heroin addicts are prescribed methadone as part of a program to kick the habit, it might be possible to reduce recidivism, Arkin suggests. A government agency would probably never fund such a project, Arkin says, and he doesn’t know of anyone else who would either. “But nonetheless I do believe there is a possibility that we may be able to better protect society through this kind of research, rather than having the sex robot cottage industry develop in seedy back rooms, which indeed it is already,” he said.

Even if—and it’s a big if—such a project could win funding and ethical approval, it would be difficult to carry out, Sharkey cautions. “How do you actually do the research until these things are out there in the wild and used for a while? How do you know you’re not creating pedophiles?” he said.

How the legal system would deal with child-like sex robots isn’t entirely clear, according to Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that simulated child pornography (in which young adults or computer generated characters play the parts of children) is protected by the First Amendment and can’t be criminalized. “I could see that extending to embodied [robotic] children, but I can also see courts and regulators getting really upset about that,” Calo said.

Our Laws Aren’t Made for Robots

Child-like sex robots are just one of the many ways in which robots are likely to challenge the legal system in the future, Calo said. “The law assumes, by and large, a dichotomy between a person and a thing. Yet robotics is a place where that gets conflated,” he said.

For example, the concept of mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) is central to criminal law: For an act to be considered a crime, there has to be intent. Artificial intelligence could throw a wrench into that thinking, Calo said. “The prospect of robotics behaving in the wild, displaying emergent or learned behavior creates the possibility there will be crimes that no one really intended.”

To illustrate the point, Calo used the example of Darius Kazemi, a programmer who created a bot that buys random stuff for him on Amazon. “He comes home and he’s delighted to find some box that his bot purchased,” Calo said. But what if Kazemi’s bot bought some alcoholic candy, which is illegal in his home state of Massachusetts? Could he be held accountable? So far the bot hasn’t stumbled on Amazon’s chocolate liqueur candy offerings—it’s just hypothetical. But Calo thinks we’ll soon start seeing cases that raise these kinds of questions.

And it won’t stop there. The apparently imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles will raise new questions in liability law. Social robots inside the home will raise 4th Amendment issues. “Could the FBI get a warrant to plant a question in a robot you talk to, ‘So, where’d you go this weekend?’” Calo asked. Then there are issues of how to establish the limits that society deems appropriate. Should robots or the roboticists who make them be the target of our laws and regulations?

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fantastic journal: On the limits of anthropomorphic machines

fantastic journal: On the limits of anthropomorphic machines part 1

part 2

I spend an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. To be more precise I spend a lot of time with someone who spends an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. My (nearly) three year old son is obsessed by it; he sleeps with his Thomas trains, eats with a Thomas knife and fork and wears Thomas pyjamas. The words to the Thomas songs comprise almost his entire vocabulary.

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I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the roots of my son’s obsession. I’m fairly sure that he’s unaware of the antiquarian nature of steam trains or that the setting is nominally in a slightly distant past. My son doesn’t seem to care that there are aren’t any traction engines to be found anymore or that men don’t dress in spats and a top hat like the Fat Controller. In that sense the appeal of the books might genuinely be considered timeless. The world they depict is somehow complete enough in itself to form a hermetic, self-sustaining universe.

As any parent knows, children are Utopians. They construct fantasy worlds that run on rules of their own devising. These rules are often rigidly inflexible and uncompromising. The appeal of Thomas then might lie in the precise logic of an imaginary railway network. The simple rules that underpin the movement and actions of the trains might also be the part that makes them so successful. The engines themselves have very limited scope for independent action. They can move forwards and backwards, speed up and down, occasionally break down or have an accident but that’s about it. They can’t fight, or dance or play football or run. They don’t chase villains or solve mysteries and they have no special powers. Although they have been anthropomorphised they remain far more train than human. They are in many ways merely extensions of the way that we often attribute human characteristics to machines, giving them names and celebrating their faults as charming idiosyncrasies.

The engines also depend on humans for operation. In the original stories the relationship of the trains to their drivers and guards is very carefully delineated. It does not intrude so much that the trains become ‘simply’ machines but neither are they allowed any genuine independence. They can only deviate from the control of their human operators to a limited degree, normally with fairly disastrous results. These limitations also extend to the minimal nature of the stories where a fallen tree or a faulty turntable provides pretty much the only narrative hook. The legendarily boring nature of the stories is actually cleverly consistent with the repetitive nature of the engine’s tasks. The text mirrors this, repeating simple phrases in a way that is analogous to the movements of the trains. “Clickety clack went the trucks”, “We did it together, we did it together” etc.

Alongside this physically limited universe is an equally restricting moral one. Unsurprisingly perhaps given the identity of the author of the stories, the Thomas books are filled with simple pieties and swift retribution for crimes and misdemeanors. Instructions and justice are metered out by the all-powerful Fat Controller. Sometimes they get abandoned, like Duke the Lost Engine, or decommissioned or even on occasion cut up for scrap. A bleak Victorian morality hangs over the stories allowing for sentimentality and indulgence but only up to a point and only after the work has been done. The aspiration for the all the engines is to be considered “really useful”, a reward that that confirms both their status as machines and their role within an over-arching morality of duty.

The TV series of Thomas remained faithful to both the storylines and the moral universe of the books for some time. The fact that it was filmed using an actual model railway gave it in some ways an even greater degree of fidelity to the concept than the original illustrated books. If the model trains couldn’t do something then neither could the ones in the stories. The wobbly, home-made aesthetic of the model railway became part of the series’ ‘charm’, an anachronistic 1950’s toy used to recreate the equally anachronistic world of 1950’s steam engines.

More recently the series has been introducing new characters, partly as a way of boosting merchandise sales but also in order to create new plot lines. The relatively recent switch to CGI has produced a more decisive shift though. In contrast to the earlier stories, recent feature length Thomas’ have involved the discovery of lost towns, psychotically deranged diesel engines and journeys to magic islands. This expansion beyond the tightly controlled constraints of the original books pushes the logic of the series’ scenario beyond plausible limits.

In Misty Island Rescue, for instance, Thomas is set adrift on a raft at sea, eventually running ashore on an island that appears to be in the deep south of America. Even more bizarrely, when Thomas’ raft hits the beach the engine rolls straight onto a conveniently placed set of tracks running directly out of the water. Later on Thomas discovers some kind of portal or short-cut between Sodor and Misty Island via a vast hollowed out tree trunk. In other recent films Thomas discovers lost towns (The Great Discovery), battles evil baddies (Day of the Diesels) and travels through yet another portal to a contemporary mid-Western village called Shining Time (Thomas and the Magic Railroad).

These fantastical adventures cause a kind of conceptual crisis in Thomas’ carefully controlled universe. His actions are no longer those of a railway engine stuck shunting trucks but of a buccaneering adventurer. The Reverend Awdry’s pedantic fidelity to the movements of steam engines and railway lines is long gone. The driver and guard have become like those film crews accompanying TV explorers, something that it’s convenient to forget about lest they spoilt the mystique. It’s no coincidence that this capitulation to pure fantasy has come about at the same time as a shift from real-time modeling to CGI. Computer rendering allows Thomas the physical and conceptual freedom to inhabit any kind of environment in more or less any way. Thomas has moved from being an anthropomorphised machine into a human being who just happens to look like a train.

The first half of this post wasn’t intended as a rant against CGI, although it’s true to say that the original Thomas drawings are for more subtle and beautiful than the current animations. The development of computer animation has created a renaissance in children’s movies, particularly from the Pixar studio. It’s interesting then that Pixar’s own fantasy world creations are also most successful when operating in a similarly plausible but defined universe to that of the Railway Series.

Much of the humour and pathos of the Toy Story movies, for example, emanates from a tension between what the toys can and can’t do, and from the fact that they are restricted to a series of plausible movements. Their ability to stretch (Slinky Dog), disassemble themselves (Mr Potato Head) and organise military operations (Bucket O Soldiers) provides action sequences within precise physical limitations Equally important to the storyline is what the toys can’t do, such as Buzz Lightyear’s various heartbreaking attempts to fly. They may be ‘alive’ but they also only exist within a logical extension of their ‘toyness’. As in Salvador Dali’s Paranoiac Critical method, an absurd fantasy (of the toys being alive but still toys) is pursued with complete logic throughout.

The toys also clearly inhabit a human world although they fight for independence within it. This is in contrast to the recent Cars franchise which, interestingly, runs into many of the same problems as the new Thomas. Like Thomas, the Cars concept depends on the anthropomorphisation of machines. Unlike Thomas though the machines in Cars inhabit a people-less world, one where they have replaced the roles, characteristics and foibles of the absent humans. This conceit is wittily explored in the first film both visually (vans that look like Elvis, radiator grill moustaches that suggest redneck tendencies etc.) and structurally (a town designed by and for cars).

The action of the first film is confined to very limited spheres, essentially either the stadium in which the cars race or the isolated desert town of Radiator Springs. The choice of the town’s location is important because it avoids all sorts of contradictions that would occur in a larger and more pedestrian – and thus human – orientated realm. The functions of the buildings in Radiator Springs have been altered so that the generic Italian restaurant has become a garage and the petrol station the local drive-in. This is a car-based universe and nothing breaks the logic or the suspension of disbelief required to follow their anthropomorphised autonomy.

In the second Cars film the action has become global and follows the World Grand Prix, a series of races held in well-known cities. This creates a conceptual problem in that the cities (London, Paris, Tokyo etc) need to be rendered both plausibly recognisable and consistent with a people-less universe. Subtle scale changes are made to the sizes of doorways for instance and humour is found in car based versions of human spaces such as the rough local pub ‘inhabited’ by taxis and delivery trucks. And although famous landmarks have been rather fabulously ‘motorised’ (as detailed here) it remains impossible to imagine what they might actually be for.

But the film still begs some fairly fundamental questions which threaten to derail it entirely. What happens in the mansard roofs of those Parisian apartments? Why have upper floors at all? Who are the double-decker buses for? Not only that but the cars themselves are thrown into a full-on spoof spy movie where they fly through the air, set off booby traps and engage in tyre-to-tyre combat Jason Bourne style. As the cars have become more human, moving beyond simply being machines with characters, the absence of humans becomes oddly more telling.

Not only does the construction of an alternative car based society need precise rules to work but the humour depends on the careful substitution of one set of rules for another. The way that cars move, the things that they can and can’t do is very important. When they can fly through the air firing machine guns and foiling international villains their car-ness becomes far less implausible (of course) but also less important. Similarly, when they inhabit an environment whose underlying logic is clearly man-made (stairs, attics, Georgian windows etc), the suspension of disbelief evaporates.

In a sense, the moral universe inhabited by the Cars is every bit as pervasive as the one in Thomas the Tank Engine. The world of duty, obedience and responsibility delineated in Thomas is no less insufferable than the homilies about friendship and staying true to oneself in Cars. There is a confused environmental narrative at the heart of the Cars storyline too, presumably as an attempt to ameliorate the obsession with motor racing to start with. But children’s stories always have an explicitly moral message. The creation of alternative worlds be they miniature, anthropomorphic or whatever, allows for the creation of precise rules and limits. These serve not only to contain the fantasy but to communicate the ethical dilemmas the stories rehearse.

The ‘system’ which underpins the action is a kind of machine itself, a metaphor for a functioning moral universe where things have their place and people understand their role. Tests to the stability of this universe form the narrative for individual stories, helping ultimately to reinforce the desirability of the system to start with. Character’s that deviate from their roles are punished in the end and learn to accept certain limits to their freedom. This is why Thomas the Tank Engine is such a brilliant conception for children’s stories.