Ever hear of ASIMO or QRIO? They are Honda’s and Sony’s humanoid-looking robots. They were designed to interact with humans in an appealing way. They, and Sony’s robot dog AIBO, were as much a social experiment as one that pushed the limits of current technology.
Aside from using its legs and arms in a quasi-human-like manner, and responding to simple pre-programmed commands, the robots do something profoundly compelling: They turn their gaze to you when you move or talk. Instinctively, we return that gaze, over and over and over. It is almost impossible not to look at the robot that turns its attention to you, even though the robot has no sense, no caring.
We are surely less than a generation away from newer ASIMO versions that will be able to elicit enough of a social response to become companions for the elderly and infirmed – a substitute for human companionship, a new kind of pet. This is not necessarily a move in the right direction, but since most of society would rather not have to deal with social problems such as the elderly and infirmed, it is bound to happen.
There’s a sort of problem brewing amongst robot designers. They are questioning if the exploitation of gaze behavior, speech mirroring (the Eliza effect) and humanoid features to popularize and sell their product is ethical, and there are real concerns about the addictive (and supposedly unhealthy) nature of human-humanoid interaction.
Even the most rudimentary social interactions can become addictive (witness Man’s interaction and relationship with cats). It will be interesting to watch how society adapts to any emotional and physical dependence on our artificial creations.
We should all read Pygmalion.