Posted in biology, communication and networking, electronic imaging and displays

Robots: friend or foe?

Seeing this article about a cute, Disney(TM) looking robot designed to not be scary and whose creator says is supposed to promote peace and have a conscience and actually care about us lower lifeforms launched me back into a topic I am very interested in, which is the obsession with humans that robots are in fact scary and going to take over the world.

The U.S. culture has a much deeper fear of robots than say Japan or other Asian countries. There is a wealth of literature, film, and T.V. shows exploring the fears of artificial intelligence and what would happen if robots were all over the world and really, really smart.

Perhaps it’s because robotics and artificial intelligence has infiltrated our daily lives; they can act as noses, brains, taste buds, muscles, eyes, and limbs. They can take on dangerous jobs like detecting mines and testing food to see if it’s poisonous or gone rotten. They have taken on the roles of maids, babies, pets, and caregivers for the elderly.  Some robots have been programmed to problem solve around obstacles, identify each other, and create “art.” They are becoming more independent and “smarter” every year.

Human/computer interaction is becoming a big research topic. Robots have actually been designed to look more alive and less scary. At the same time, robotics designers have found they can’t make them look too human, or they’re intimidating. But, if they give robots little eyes and maybe a smiling mouth, or lights and controls that look like eyes and a mouth, they find that humans aren’t as intimidated by the electronics. They’ve created robotic newscasters and girlfriends.

The point that people seem to forget is that we humans are programming these robots. They can only be as smart as we program them to be. Everyone seems to assume that all robots will at some point break free from their human overlords and act like pubescent sociopathic geniuses. But robots don’t have to go through puberty.

That may seem weird, but think about it: for even the most independent robots their “life” is a fairly steady learning process not interrupted by hormones or the need to mate or even necessarily the desire to break free of anything. If their goal in life is to serve a certain purpose, even if it’s learning and scientific exploration, then so long as they’re serving that purpose then that’s all they’re worried about, not who controls them or the world at large.

That said, I am reluctant to trust many electronic things, like Roombas and automatic coffee makers, but for the same reason I don’t like power windows in my car: electronics break down.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.