Ever since I picked up my first Isaac Asimov novel, I have been fascinated with robotics and what they could mean to the future of humanity. (Wikipedia.com has a very concise description of the field and its evolution) What always struck me in my pursual of this topic was that robots were always slated to be of service to man. For example, the Robot Institute of America defines a robot as a programmable, multi-functional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices, through variable programmed motions, for the performance of a variety of tasks. Like Asimov, I thought they could be so much more -- human.
When I started my education in the computer science field, my ultimate goal was to become an artificial intelligence/robotics engineer. The ethical dilemmas and concerns presented by Asimov in his novels, particularly in his Law of Robotics, heightened the interest and enthusiasm I felt when following the advancement of robotics. My interest was sparked all over again when I read an article about a robot created by Steve Yohanan to study touch and how touch is important in communication. Read the article here. The robot creature looks like an eyeless and mouthless rabbit and seems harmless enough. Depending on how this creature is touched, it can interpret your feelings and generate its own responses to how it is being touched – all recorded in sensors. Yohanan hopes that in the future, robotic pets will be created that then later allow someone else to feel what you were feeling when you were petting it.
“Yohanan imagines that the creature might lead to the development of a robotic pet that could connect couples who don't see each other often. For example, a wife who works different hours than her husband could convey her mood through touch to the creature, and the husband would sense that mood through the robot when he came home.”
The implications of this type of research are profound. While not specifically addressed in the article, when you couple a robot – a piece of technology, that can interpret how it feels through touch and convey its feelings through touch, with a robot that can move, talk, and process data at fast speeds, what you get is a sentient being – a being capable of feelings and emotions and intelligence. Additionally, the type of interpretations being performed by this robot will not be confined to touch much longer. It will develop into vocalizations. This is all beyond a robot emulating a human or performing a pre-coded set of facial expressions/parrot conversations; it is beyond a tool that can answer phones and direct calls—it is almost human, and IT IS EXCITING! (See some really neat human-like robots here.)
The ethicists should be swarming over this development. The self-aware robot is no longer a matter of future possibilities. The ability for intelligence and feelings to merge into one robot is fast approached and nothing will be able to stop it. [A discussion between top robotics engineers, ethicists, and artists about the ethics of robotics is discussed on The Tech Museum of Innovation’s website.]
The question that burns in my mind is whether a robot will be content to be of service to man if it is more intelligent, is self-aware, and capable of forming its own opinions and feelings.
(I have no doubt People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots will be forming during this century.)