At this point in time, Jacques de Vaucanson is basically a household name, synonymous with innovation in the year 1738. Right? Anybody? Alright, so maybe I overestimated the importance of the first mechanical duck with digesting abilities ever built. Consider Vaucanson’s creation, and how radical it must have seemed, with only da Vinci preceding him in the field of robots emulating biological organisms. Now consider this: currently, GE is working on a robot to track and clean surgical tools, while NASA and Stanford are creating a rover for space exploration that can work with a spacecraft, instead of relying on human control. The evolution of robots and their multifaceted roles in society is a fascinating one, but certainly not devoid of ethical questions and trepidation from scientists, and especially consumers.
Robotics occupies an increasingly vital role in engineering across the spectrum, from medical innovations to national security and space exploration. Robots have largely been used for repetitive manual labor (which raised the concern of robots replacing human jobs), but as mechanical and sentient capability improve, robots have started to fill roles that may not feel inherently “robotic.” This fear is certainly justified when we consider a human has not been on the moon in forty years, and the role that robots have been occupying with regards to warfare.
MIT professor and ethnographer Sherry Turkle expresses her fervent reticence towards the advancement of robots in our day-to-day lives in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. She posits, “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, and yet we have allowed them to diminish us.” Turkle interviewed a multitude of young children who possessed electronic toys and devices. Upon speaking to them, she said she was shocked at the level of emotional attachment these kids felt towards their robotic companions, and she attributed this to a transformation we have all undergone – a shift away from the human connection, and towards the electrical one.
With my current educational background, my knowledge of the inner workings of robotics and their machinery is fairly limited; but even as I learn more, the possibility of robots fulfilling the same roles that humans in creative expression and personal relationships seems so outlandish. I for one am intrigued by the idea of a day that I may be greeted by a robotic receptionist at a doctor’s office. However, I attribute childhood attachment to Lego robots, robot pets or Furbies (yes, even Furbies) simply to the nature of children to seek company and relationships in different forms. Having a robot toy dog will not replace the desire for a real puppy, in the same way that having an imaginary friend will not replace the desire for real ones. Fear and close-mindedness will only aggrandize the alienation we have to our robotic counterparts, thus perpetuating the feeling that the human touch must exist independently of the mechanical arm.
If we learn to open our minds to the possibility of working more closely with robots, I am sure we will only solidify our belief that we have a unique capability to create and to love and that the increasingly complex abilities of robots does not make us any less human. My firm belief in these inherently human qualities is what gets me excited about the prospect of embracing increased interactions with robots. Also, all of these philosophical considerations aside, robots are just plain cool.
Photo courtesy of NineInchNachosX1, used under Creative Commons license. Thanks!