Are we ready for robot relationships? asked chair Luke Dormehl, at the British Academy debate on 21st February. A staple of science fiction, the question isn’t as strange as it perhaps first seems. From SatNavs to Apple’s Siri, talking robots are now a key part of everyday life. “The robots are ready for us but are we ready for them?,” asked Dormehl. “How will our relationships with these emerging technologies develop and what will they look like? Are sex robots an actual thing, and if they are should they be embraced physically and emotionally or worried about?”
The first speaker was Margaret Boden, a Research Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of Sussex. She opened by saying: “I suppose my initial response to the question ‘Are we ready for robot relationships?,’ is perhaps we’re too ready for them.” The ubiquity of phones has made young people totally reliant on technology. “I believe that there are some young men—I assume they’re young men—maybe not, who actually speak to Siri more than 250 times a day to try and have sexual conversations.” They are using Siri as they would porn, said Boden, and are not deceiving themselves that they are having an actual relationship. In a different category are so-called robot carers or robot companions. She said she was worried that such carers were being used in old people’s homes to provide “conversation, comfort, solace.” Because they can only provide an imitation of the real thing. They can’t laugh at your joke—or groan at it. If it expresses sympathy and says, “I’m sorry,” it can’t really be sorry.
There’s a little robot seal called Paro, she went on, that you can cuddle, and it does give people some comfort. But it doesn’t talk. So it’s not pretending, it’s giving you the sort of comfort which a teddy bear could give. “It’s not possible to have a genuine relationship with one of these things. They’re not human beings. They aren’t even dogs.”
Kathleen Richardson, Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montfort University, questioned whether it was really progress if we were to merge our selves with machines. Rather, by blurring the lines between humans and robots, we risk dehumanising ourselves. “I want to suggest the origin story of relational robots and AI is about property,” she said. To create robots as friends…