THE WEEK

The Week - - News - Jeremy O’grady

What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a sex pest and a robot? It’s a more press­ing ques­tion than you may think. Sexbots primed for sex­ual en­coun­ters are go­ing to be the next big thing in ro­bot­ics, it’s widely pre­dicted, so the AI sci­en­tists will want to be sure their male bots don’t start be­hav­ing like cer­tain mem­bers of Par­lia­ment. It prob­a­bly won’t be hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the sexbots from one type of pest – the man who just doesn’t care how the woman re­acts to his ad­vances. The sci­en­tists are quite ca­pa­ble of de­vis­ing al­go­rithms that build on clear signs of en­cour­age­ment from an en­thu­si­as­tic part­ner. But dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing the bot from the more com­mon type of pest – the man who can’t read the sig­nals but thinks he can; who mis­takes an em­bar­rassed gig­gle or strained smile for a pos­i­tive cue – that’s go­ing to be a whole lot harder. The lack of in­ter­pre­ta­tive sub­tlety, of con­tex­tual aware­ness and of em­pa­thy ex­hib­ited by such men are pre­cisely the sort of de­fi­cien­cies we as­so­ciate with... robots.

In a spir­ited let­ter to The Guardian last week (see p27), Sheila Hay­man ar­gues that the more sub­tle as­pects of hu­man in­tel­li­gence can never be repli­cated by al­go­rithms, be­cause al­go­rithms mimic the mo­tor com­mand neu­rons in our brains, not the mir­ror neu­rons that give rise to em­pa­thy. She may be wrong: there’s much dis­pute about mir­ror neu­rons and, in any case, sci­en­tists may even­tu­ally get to mimic them. But if she’s right, and I hope for hu­man­ity’s sake she is, we should be ever more wary of sur­ren­der­ing to rule by al­go­rithm... and by cer­tain types of politi­cian.

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