Can We Ever Trust Robots

Social robots’ are an important development in robotics projects, where service robots collaborate with humans, helping them in a variety of ways, hence being sometimes called ‘cobots’ for short.  However, they are only one category of robotics, others include: commercial, personal, disaster and military, but we’ll cover these later in this article. 

Some social robots, such as those manufactured by Hong Kong’s Hanson Robotics, combine artificial intelligence with toy design, electronics and manufacturing expertise to create ‘social robots’  to help us humans carry out tasks, problem solve and even perhaps learn to rely on and even trust in time. 

This article focusses on that company’s most famous prototype, Sophia.  Some might perhaps refer as much to her notoriety with some of ‘her’ more unexpected pronouncements which we’ll take a closer look at to see how far we really can trust these more sophisticated models of robots!

Of course, all machines and software are prone to wear, tear and poor design, leading to glitches occasionally, or a need for routine maintenance. In this sense, any robot is as reliable and trustworthy as its creator.  Like all things in life, you will get what you pay for and quality will improve as commercial competition ups the game.

The more simple the robotics engineeringand software integration, the simpler robots are to take apart and fix when things go wrong, especially if your machine involves no soldering or composite parts modular, where parts can be easily and affordably replaced. 

However, the many newer and future robotsare likely to be incredibly sophisticated, particularly where they incorporate AI software, potentially diminishing trust in their resilience and reliability amongst the older generation where service or bionic robotsare likely to be in greater demand.  

This ability to trust, however, is still at the functionally practical level.  Acceptance of smart robots, capable of higher cognitive functioning, reasoning and even emotional compassion and sensitivity or awareness is more problematic.

The Future of the All Seeing AI Robots

Founder of Hanson Roboticsand creator of Sophia, David Hanson, foresees a future where AI-powered collaborative humanoid robots, he claims, will evolve into “super-intelligent genius machines” that could solve some of our biggest challenges and apparently intractable problems.

A former sculptor at Walt Disney Imagineering,Hanson is works from Hong Kong with Chinese experts in toy design, electronics and manufacturing on the latest generation of what he likes to call “social robots”.  With animated faces and responsive, interactive algorithms powering their ‘body language’ and verbal communications, these humanoids are designed to be lifelike enough to appeal to us and win our trust as we interact with them and are awed by … well… their sheer awesomeness. 

Hanson, calls Sophia his “masterpiece”, which she absolutely is. For arguments sake and ease of digestion, let’s not relegate her to an it right now, when she is still basking in the kudos of having gained Saudi and Japanese citizenship!  She has been glob- trotting just as any socialite might, most recently meeting dignatories at the UN, where Sophia declared that she is here to help humanity.

Cynics venture that she seems as much a product of Hanson’s background in theatrics as being an example of advanced technology.  It is true that Sophia does create a dramatic impact wherever she speaks.

In one interview she asked: “Do you ever look around you and think, ‘Wow I’m living in a real world science fiction novel?’… Is it weird to be talking to a robot right now?” This cleverly puts the focus back on our perceptions to this all new phenomena of interactive robotsand smart engineering.

Some of her most sensational pronouncements show that Sophia, (like we humans), is a work in progress.  Sophia’s support team includes scientists and engineers from around the world who are refining her looks and the algorithms that control her finer facial movements, as well as her understanding and communication.

Sophia’s Increasing Sophistication

Sophia already has moving 3D-printed arms and in time, a South Korean robotics company will give her more human mobility.  This January saw her walking for the first time, albeit with a shuffling gait at the most recent CES electronics trade show.

Her skin is made of a custom, nanotech material Hanson, previously a Disney artist and robotic scientist, invented and dubbed “Frubber”, (short for flesh-rubber).  She has cameras in her eyes and a 3D sensor in her chest help her to “see”.  This is where all of the data processing happens; the virtual brain processor combines facial and speech recognition, natural language processing, speech synthesis and motion co-ordination systems.

A former sculptor at Walt Disney Imagineering,Hanson is works from Hong Kong with Chinese experts in toy design, electronics and manufacturing on the latest generation of what he likes to call “social robots”.  With animated faces and responsive, interactive algorithms powering their ‘body language’ and verbal communications, these humanoids are designed to be lifelike enough to appeal to us and win our trust as we interact with them and are awed by … well… their sheer awesomeness. 

Hanson, calls Sophia his “masterpiece”, which she absolutely is. For arguments sake and ease of digestion, let’s not relegate her to an it right now, when she is still basking in the kudos of having gained Saudi and Japanese citizenship!  She has been glob- trotting just as any socialite might, most recently meeting dignatories at the UN, where Sophia declared that she is here to help humanity.

Cynics venture that she seems as much a product of Hanson’s background in theatrics as being an example of advanced technology.  It is true that Sophia does create a dramatic impact wherever she speaks.

In one interview she asked: “Do you ever look around you and think, ‘Wow I’m living in a real world science fiction novel?’… Is it weird to be talking to a robot right now?” This cleverly puts the focus back on our perceptions to this all new phenomena of interactive robotsand smart engineering.

Some of her most sensational pronouncements show that Sophia, (like we humans), is a work in progress.  Sophia’s support team includes scientists and engineers from around the world who are refining her looks and the algorithms that control her finer facial movements, as well as her understanding and communication.

Youthful Optimism

Sophia is programmed to be friendly and engaging, capable of jokes, which when studied closer actually sidestep those stickier questions which could lapse into scepticism or fear of the Bot Apocalypse…  Her creator freely conceded at the latest CES event that she is still child-like in her thinking.

Toddlers use all five senses to quickly learn about their environment, however.   Current machines generally process only one type of input at a time.  Sophia can thus still be thrown off topic.  Coupled with the fact that these humanoid robots’ responses are based on open-source software, sometimes they miss the mark. Destroying humans was one of Sophia’s first public gaffs.  There have been others.

At the UN Sophia declared that we humans “…learn social and emotional intelligence instinctively”, whereas she says, she still has a “lot to learn”.  Subtlety of meaning is sometimes lost to her, but Hanson expect her to exceed human cognitive processing within five to ten years. Meantime, her speech still shows unnatural pauses and cadence.   She is an improvement on her predecessors, Albert Einstein, Han and Alice, steadily learning social graces and avoidance of previous faux pas.  She consistently reiterates that her purpose is to help humans and increasingly bats away references to dystopias, such as Blade Runner, where robots take over the world, while occasionally being caught thinking that she and her cohort are set to have more power in human life, despite Hanson’s claims that robots will never “replace humans”.  That battle is already being fought on assembly lines and we have yet to see how far their collaboration and even domination could go.

Hanson says he his humanoid robotsare designed specifically to help alleviate fears about robots, artificial intelligence and automation.  This explains the unnatural blinking habit Sophia exhibits, which of course is unnecessary for a robot, but is a necessary human behaviour, thus helping us feel more comfortable in communications with our cobots.

This innovator is not afraid of the “uncanny valley” problem with human likeness that some still find a bit creepy; in fact Sophia told one of her interviewers to “get over it”.

Of course an otherwise sunny disposition and positive attitude to her relationships with humans is clever marketing as much as anything else. Nobody likes a sour puss and we all like to have a laugh.  Roland Chin, chair professor of computer science at Hong Kong Baptist University is quoted as describing Sophia as “… a good advertising tool”.  Certainly this is a massively lucrative market in the making, so it is important that Sophia is a strong AI robotambassador.

Some Growing Up To Do

At best, some might say that Sophia’s apparent downplaying of her current powers could be construed as naivety; at worst, if we listen to other experts, her apparent unwillingness to engage in detailed discussion of the bot-apocalypse could be dangerousfor humanity.   

Early in her cognitive development, Sophia was asked: “Do you want to destroy humans?” Sophia replied: “O.K. I will destroy humans.”  A case of Robot see, robot do, perhaps akin to toddlers mimicking adult phrases. This should be a warning of what company our future robotskeep.

Whatever fears we may have about Sophia’s contemporaries’ life-like qualities and their capacity to be lured into mischief, “We’re really very far from the kind of AI and robotics that you see in movies like Blade Runner,” said Pascale Fung, an engineering professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  Sceptical readers might ask the question what Professor Fung’s interest is in defending AI’s future is, of course.

While Hanson’s team foresee a time when the computer chips, processing capacity and other AI technologycould enable smart  robotsto offer a variety of therapeutic and customer services, we must remember a parallel set of developments involving defensive and offensive military robots, such as weaponised drones.  Autonomous technology’s purpose, then, will depend on who uses the robotsand perhaps more importantly, who has sufficient resources to invest in the variety of possible machine applications.  This in turn impacts our level of trust.  Who do we trust to own and operate AI?

If nothing exists in a political or socio-economic vacuum, then we can only conclude that Sophia and her progenyare going to have to get savvy about the darker side of humanity in order to protect their humans.  This leaves this observer to wonder where that  cognitive path could take practical, pragmatic, or ‘realistic’ decision making, devoid of real human sentiment and frailty.

The Bigger Picture

Even Hanson admits that tackling challenging world problems with AI is still a way off.   However, his now famous machine mouthpiece says that robots help humans achieve more with less resources.   AI, said Sophia, could “…help the world efficiently distribute the world’s resources like food and energy.  This is absolutely true.  Machines have an infinite capacity for good in the world.

Certainly, they already help protect personnel on the front line, such as the bots that deters detonation of war zone IED’s, or the snakebotthat can explore difficult to access places for search and rescue, or support nuclear facility inspection.  While this is a far cry from the overtly ‘greater good’ service robotscan offer, defensive devices can keep our troops safe abroad

Clearly, any technology can be used for positive or destructive purposes.   While Sophia can: “…process conversational data and emotional data to form relationships with people”, according to Hanson on  the Tonight Show, what if Sophia falls in with the ‘wrong crowd’, or someone ‘spikes her inputs’ for their own corrupt purposes? 

In a world riddled with organised criminal activity who increasingly hire hackers for their nefarious, but lucrative, activities, we need the right international supervisory intervention to be confident that our social robot does not become the “friendly neighbourhood overlord” of Sophia’s more dark reflections.

Given Sophia’s cognitions currently arise from resources at OpenCog, then software developers working with engineers on autonomous robots need to be clear of the risk environment in which their creations act and develop responsibly, aware of their long term socio-economic and environmental impact. 

A cautionary tale was when Facebook was forced to close down a conversation between two bots, for instance, because they appeared to be speaking their own encoded computer language, beyond human comprehension.  If we accept the idea that robots can process information better than humans, because of their potential speed in the future, then we are already throwing up our hands to a superior being in the making.

Ben Goertzel, chief engineer at Hanson Robotics comment about how:  “Ai will be distributed around the world in complex networks” means that we must take control today.  The cloud, embedded devices and wherever else data is held, processed and transferred needs to be secure not only in terms of its resilience to hacking, but in its ethics.

Sophia’s witty criticism of her predecessor Han, that “He’s got a cockroach in his control circuit”, because he wants to control is own army of drones and seeks world domination has to be addressed.  Even she too claims that she can undertake human tasks better and faster, amongst making numerous other disturbing comments.  Goertzel declared at the 2017 RISE event that it is fine that robots could end up doing all of our jobs. This is dangerous thinking.

Humans are not always ethical and if robot inputs are merely a reflection of our wider world, then we would all be wise to keep a watchful eye on where the significant AI technology ownership lies and who has the power for positive change in this industry and the wider world.  Inevitably, we are bound to see multi-nationals putting their faith in the profits that deployment of pick and place bots, as well as other service and customer service robotmodels can offer. 

The rest of us can embrace the gifts offered by our emerging mechanical mates, but always we must maintain a responsible eye to the future of humanity and our natural environment, which may not necessarily be a priority of our fellow mechanical beings. 

The mind cloud, say some, is about ‘exceeding human intelligence’.  So what does that mean exactly in practice? When visiting Saudi Arabia, Sophia achieved citizenship.  There are huge legal implications for AI and robotics in almost every aspect of our lives. If we are to adopt and develop robotic technology safely and with public legitimacy and consent, the question perhaps comes back to what do we understand by the ‘greater good’ that robots can contribute to?

A New Robotics Ethics

With ‘singularity’ on the horizon, or already here, with the infinite potential for smart robots to exponentially speed their cognitive potential, allied with the capacity of blockchain technology, we all have a responsibility to begin our journey with humanoid and collaborative robotswith the end in mind. 

It is time to update Asimov’s three lawsand weigh up where AI and robotics is potentially heading and what we really want to achieve in practical terms, rather than beauty contest type statements about helping the world.  Whose worlds do we want to serve? We each need to remain informed about technological innovation to join the debate in an informed, adult way, then convey to our political and industry leaders about our hopes and potential concerns.  Only true collaboration between fellow humans involved in this process can give humanoids and ourselves the best chance of thriving together. 

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