Making Robots In Our Own Image

Why Are We So Obsessed With Humanoid Robots?

Slowly but surely, robots are entering the mainstream consumer market. Softbank’s chatty Pepper is already dealing with customers at Pizza Hut and Californian clothing store The Ave, Nadine has been working as a receptionist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and online grocery leaders Ocado are building their own robot mechanic to help human employees. Scarlett Johansson even makes for a particularly effective killing machine in this year’s sci-fi action film Ghost in the Shell. Whilst these bots are all used for various different applications within a range of industries, there’s one thing they all have in common. They look like us.

Playing God or applying logic?
In many ways, it seems to make sense that many advanced robots have been given a human design. For a start, we want robots to perform tasks that people currently do today. If you want to teach a robot to walk a dog, for example, they need to be physically able to do it. This is also the case within production lines and factories – these environments are built for people, so it’s logical to design a robot to compliment that system. It’s a stroke of marketing genius too, as it’s arguably easier for us to interact with a physical entity we can associate with. Communicating with something that resembles us seems more natural than chatting away to a box, for instance. So, on the one hand, making robots look like us is fairly logical. But on the other, this could negatively impact their future adoption. The more that robots become like us, the more potential they have to threaten us. Perhaps an unassuming little machine like Jibo, confined to a worktop or shelf, is less disconcerting.

D/SRUPTION’s Kev Cooke says:

“It’s amazing how often people expect robots to looks like human beings. While legs are wonderful things, I’m not convinced they are necessarily the best way to travel around when starting from a blank canvas. The human body is clearly something we can learn an enormous amount from – but it’s not always the best place to begin when designing an industrial robot for example. While it’s certainly valuable for engineers to learn to replicate different aspects of our bodies, emulation isn’t always right for the job. I think this trend inevitably comes from our slightly arrogant and anthropocentric view that leads us to anthropomorphise our creations. It’s often the case that sci-fi and other creative works inspire new technology and then influence the manner in which we explore them.”

In fairness, the existence of non humanoid robots does show that we aren’t solely interested in making them exactly like us. Soft robots, for example, can do things that regular bots and humans can’t, like fit into tiny spaces to carry out repair work. Even so, the ‘end goal’ of advanced robotics still very much seems to focus around the all singing, all dancing humanoid. This is probably because, in reality, humans are rather short sighted. When it comes to manufacturing, we evidently like to stick with what we know, and there’s little we’re more familiar with than ourselves. No doubt this will change our relationship with robotics, but how?

The disruptive impact of humanoid robots
Businesses in industries that deal with people are likely to opt for robots that customers can better associate with, and this means making them look like us. It seems inevitable that the humanoid model will continue to dominate in some areas of advanced robotics, and this will have a number of consequences. Once consumers become familiar with these machines, for instance, there will be less of a divide between humans and bots. As a result, we will treat them more like people, which will lead (and has already led) to the discussion of some deep moral questions. Things get incredibly complicated when a robot looks and acts exactly like a human being, as the critically acclaimed US drama Westworld explores. Should there be moral rules to dictate how robots are treated? Is it possible to fall in love with a robot? What divides us from robots with exactly the same capabilities as us? The show also examines the obsession to push further and further beyond a robot’s capabilities, to the point of establishing a consciousness. This, of course, is fiction – nonetheless, it highlights the fact that developers can fail to ask if something should be done purely because it can. Maybe the key is to create robots that people can distinctly categorise as robots, but still interact with on a human level. Pepper is currently a prime example of this, and there are already more than 10,000 of them in use across the globe. Eventually, etymologists may need to distinguish between humanoids and a new breed of super humanoids.

If we’re not building humanoid robots, we’re making films about them and questioning the extent of how they will change our world. Humans are clearly obsessed with pushing advanced robotics (and any other technology) as far as it can go before it starts to get scary. At the moment, there is a discernible level of scepticism, and the application of anthropomorphic robots in hospitality, industrial or retail roles is still a novelty. But sitting behind the reception desk at NTU, Nadine is an indicator of what could be to come. The next move for businesses is to work out if that’s really what consumers want, or if robots that act and look exactly like us are just little too close for comfort.

Will future models of advanced robots become more human like? What moral questions could arise from the creation and distribution of anthropomorphic machines? Will consumers find it easier to interact with humanoid or non humanoid bots? Comment below with your thoughts.