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.