Have you met charming Sophia, the life-like robot, created by David Hanson? Google her. She is fascinating. Likewise, the humanoids whose birth is credited to Hiroshi Ichi-guru. He is famous for creating android doppelgangers of himself, his daughter and others, using machinery and silicone. Then there are the books, such as David Levy’s Love and Sex With Robots and movies like Ex Machina, both very good by the way, promoting the idea that one day, humans and robots will (happily or not) co-exist.
Welcome to the digital age, where automation is not only taking over human work, but also human connectivity. People, especially younger generations, prefer to communicate through the internet with their gadgets rather than face-to-face. It is a safer, less vulnerable, time-saving and, at the same instance, time-consuming space. But there is a large difference between a hand-held device and a digital likeness of a human being. Going through the extra step of encasing the internet of things inside a life-size, human-like entity should be evaluated.
Ichi-guru says he uses humanoids to understand person-to-person interactions and human connection. But, do we really need robots to accomplish that? Along the same vein, do we seriously want to engage with such systems and why? If anything, as these digital “persons” continue to be perfected, our own imperfections will be more visible to us and those around us. Our obvious and perceived shortcomings may cause us to retreat, resulting in alienation from other fellow beings, thereby affecting person-to-person interactions, perhaps making them a thing of the past. Ichi-guru, himself, underwent cosmetic procedures once he realized he was aging while his rubber-coated replica, Geminoid HI, was not. According to Ichi-guru, “I need to be identical with my android, otherwise I’m going to lose my identity.” As if there isn’t enough pressure out there. Soon we will have to compete with figures that can work 24/7, are in shape without setting foot in a gym and never have to take Immodium.
There is an argument in favor of treating loneliness with humanoids. Place a rubberized, limbed computer in the arms of a dissociated, elderly woman and she squeals with delight. Likewise prop a beautiful, long-legged, humanoid on the edge of a divan and a man’s lonely nights become thing of the past. Man and humanoid may even get legally married in the future.
Nonetheless, the one thing that still eludes robotics engineers is human emotion. As long as emotions are lacking, the connection between robots and human beings will, arguably, never be complete. But, if human emotions are nothing more than “responses to stimuli, subject to manipulation” as Ichi-guru believes, then surely it won’t be too long before someone figures out how to program emotions, such as desire, into a humanoid. At first glance, a marked distinction between them and us, such as authenticity of emotion, may be identified but it is not necessarily so. We live in a society where up to five percent of the population qualifies as a sociopath (American Psychiatric Association). Sociopaths lack empathy and other emotions but they learn how to act as if they have been hard-wired to feel from birth. Thus, sociopaths have learned how to appear sincere and spot situations that require them to “feel” a certain way. Ordinary, feeling folk, often fall in love with sociopaths, so why not a robot? It may not really matter if a robot’s soul is a mishmosh of interconnected wires as opposed to some metaphysical substance.
A deeper issue, apart from their programmed desires and intentions, is the impact on our psychological (and eventually physical) being humanoids will have. We are used to competing with fallible, imperfect individuals. In the future, we very well may become a hindrance in a world coinhabited by intellectually and physically perfect beings who, ultimately, may become masters of their own intentions. Thus, when programming humanoids with skills, desires and intentions, we need to give them just enough rope to fulfill our needs and maybe a physical imperfection or two, so they don’t hang us in the process.