I wrote a blog with this same title back in September 2012, with the added caveat, ‘do we want them to look human’ rather than, ‘what next?’. It seems that this is a subject that doesn’t just fascinates me. It is certainly the most visited blog I’ve written, so I thought it was worth revisiting, especially as I have written other blogs exploring different aspects of this subject (What happens when machines are smarter than us; What does an android want from life?; Men and machines what does it mean to be human?; So what will we humans actually do in the future, parts 1-3).
Back in September I concluded that I didn’t want my robots to look human, that I’d rather know I was dealing with a machine. But perhaps it’s not as simple as I first thought. As our relationships with intelligent machines progress it might be inevitable that they will develop to look and act more and more human. Or at least they will have a human face they present to us. I know that we much prefer to interact with things that can show emotion, which when you consider how much of our communication we’re told is non verbal that’s not surprising. So if you were dealing with intelligent machines on a regular basis and in increasingly complex situations you’d want them to show emotion, which implies they have to look human.
But how far do we go with that?
Well, it has already started. There is ongoing research, at least on screen, with artificial faces and computers that can mimic emotion in responses. At this point I say mimic, not show, as showing emotion, to me at least, implies feeling emotion, which computers can’t do (at least not yet). You can imagine these being used for example in on-line help lines, or perhaps in automated receptions, or ticket offices. It might be preferable to going through those sets of screens each giving you several options and ending up at something that rarely answers your question. However it doesn’t take much of a science fiction imagination to see a point where those faces are indistinguishable from a real human face. And what then, if we don’t know whether we’re dealing with an actual person or an ‘intelligent’ machine? Not only is it possible that our thoughts, actions and emotions may be influenced by those intelligent machines, but also we might not even realise it’s happening. Taking it a stage further and into the realms of science fiction we’re back with the idea of androids that look and act like humans.
In last week’s blog, ‘what happens when machines are smarter than us’, I conclude that we might have to share our future destiny with intelligent machines. However, if we take the above scenario as a possibility then those machines will be in a position to influence that destiny, without us knowing. And if, as I believe, at some point they will become smarter than us, then they might see that as a justification for doing so.
So when I wrote that first blog on the subject back in September 2013 and posed the question ‘do we want them to look human?’ I assumed the choice would be ours. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe this view is a little extreme? Or maybe it’s something us humans need to think about long before that possibility arises?
As always your opinions are welcome.