Why do we feel so com­pelled to seek out emo­tional at­tach­ments with me­chan­i­cal life forms?

Wallpaper - - Technology - WRITER: JONATHAN BELL

Few tech­nolo­gies have been so ex­ten­sively fore­shad­owed as ro­bot­ics. For nearly 100 years, we’ve in­dulged in an ar­ray of spec­u­la­tive fic­tions that have de­fined the form, func­tion and so­cial im­pact of ro­bots far in ad­vance of the avail­able tech­nol­ogy. As a re­sult, au­to­ma­tion is treated more as a cul­tural trope than an eco­nomic threat. All the while the ro­bots are fer­ment­ing the stealth­i­est in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion in his­tory.

We delved be­hind the scenes at the Lon­don Sci­ence Mu­seum’s re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion about our ob­ses­sion with me­chan­i­cal life forms. As well as ask­ing the big ques­tions about ro­botic pasts, pre­sents and fu­tures, the show of­fers up a rogue’s gallery of an­droid ap­prox­i­ma­tions of spe­cial­ist ap­pli­ca­tions, from health­care through to en­ter­tain­ment.

Pop­u­lar per­cep­tion of ro­bots rarely aligns with re­al­ity. Large swathes of mod­ern in­dus­try are au­to­mated be­yond the point of no re­turn. Cars, white goods and elec­tron­ics all de­pend on ro­botic man­u­fac­ture, and the huge labour pop­u­la­tions de­ployed to as­sem­ble iphones, lap­tops and sneak­ers are also be­ing usurped by ro­botic al­ter­na­tives with no need for dorms or unions. China is the largest buyer of in­dus­trial ro­bots in the world. Yet, for most con­sumers, it mat­ters not a jot if an as­sem­bly shop is pow­ered by sweat or sparks; the end re­sult is the same. In­stead, we seem hard-wired to seek out emo­tional at­tach­ments with ro­bots, hap­pily ig­nor­ing the ir­re­place­able me­chan­i­cal bal­let of the ro­botic pro­duc­tion line.

Per­haps this is our species’ great mis­take; we want ro­bots to be fa­mil­iar and friendly, whereas their uglier, more adept rel­a­tives are qui­etly do­ing the heavy lift­ing we’d rather not deal with. As a re­sult, the path to au­to­ma­tion is un­stop­pable, with global in­dus­trial ro­bot sales ris­ing year on year. Change will come with the ro­botic shift from phys­i­cal to emo­tional labour. Projects like Ko­mod­roid, a ‘ro­bot news­caster’ that reads head­lines with­out in­flec­tion or emo­tion, let­ting you project your own feel­ings, or ROSA (Rob’s Open Source An­droid) with its im­i­ta­tion of hu­man mus­cu­lar struc­tures and spooky face-track­ing abil­ity, only scratch the sur­face of our des­per­a­tion to love, and be loved, by the ma­chine. Many gen­er­a­tions of cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tion have given ro­bots di­rect ac­cess to our heart­strings, and we haven’t even touched on the thorny is­sue of sex, let alone death.

It’s safe to say that ev­ery con­ceiv­able hu­man in­ter­ac­tion (and form of fluid ex­change) will even­tu­ally be sub­con­tracted to a ma­chine. Along the way, we’ll take the manda­tory trek to the ‘un­canny val­ley’, a dive into the awk­ward in­ter­sec­tion be­tween true-to-life hu­man fea­tures and the skin-crawl­ing con­se­quences of get­ting it a bit wrong. This partly ex­plains why hu­manoid, but not hu­man-like, ro­bots gen­er­ate the most af­fec­tion among those who in­ter­act with them.

A ro­bot is still best at do­ing a sin­gle thing ex­cep­tion­ally well, be it sift­ing, sort­ing, sweep­ing, weld­ing or stamp­ing. And yet tech­nol­o­gists and con­sumers seem com­pelled to em­power our metal friends to do much, much more. Un­for­tu­nately, we have lit­tle idea of what will hap­pen once they ac­tu­ally can.∂ ‘Ro­bots’ is show­ing at the Lon­don Sci­ence Mu­seum un­til 3 Septem­ber. It will then show at the Mu­seum of Sci­ence and In­dus­try in Manch­ester from 19 Oc­to­ber 2017 to 15 April 2018 as part of the Manch­ester Sci­ence Fes­ti­val

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