In the first two parts of this series we examined how we should treat robot workers in the workplace; should automated workers be taxed similarly to human workers to account for the offset of work and taxation that they cause, and should we give robots rights as if they were equal to human workers? Now we want to look at how treating robots as equals could affect humans as a species, would the lines between robot and human become blurred? And would we start to feel emotions towards the robots that we spend each day working and living around.
Take hitchBOT for example, this was a hitchhiking robot designed to travel across the country, hitchhiking with other travellers. After he conquered Europe and Canada, the hitchBOT set out in 2015 with the goal of travelling from Salem to San Francisco; having already managed 10,000 kilometres across the whole of Canada, and made it around Germany and the Netherlands, this was to be his crowning achievement. However, no more than a week later, hitchBOT was found destroyed in an alley in Philadelphia, and had to be shipped back in pieces to the manufacturers.
When I first read about this story I felt a weird mix of emotions, I was sad for the little robot who just wanted to go to Cali, but why? It couldn’t feel anything, it had no capacity to feel emotion or pain, so was it natural to feel sad about the loss of a robot that couldn’t care less about what happened to it.
This isn’t an isolated emotion, people get attached to pieces of technology all the time, our phones, cameras, laptops, anything that we spend an extended period of time we tend to develop some form of emotional attachment. Julie Carpenter, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington commented that:
“The technology is being developed and integrated before we fully understand the long-term psychological ramifications… How we treat robots and how they affect us emotionally – we’re not really sure what’s going to happen.”
She specialises in dealing with the relationships between robots and people, and the psychological effects it can have on people. She spends most of her time working with US military bomb disposal units and looking at how the soldiers interact with their bomb disposal robots. According to Carpenter the technicians often develop bonds with their robots, “lending them human characteristics and naming them, much like a proud owner might do to a new car”. They are seen by many as another team member, with their own quirks and personalities – so the soldiers are obviously disappointed and sad when one of them is harmed or blown up. One technician that spoke to New Scientist spoke of his emotional conflict, whereby he was sad to see the robot blown up, but happy that it was that rather than one of his friends – they described it as “a sense of loss from something happening to one of your robots. Poor little fella.”
This is hardly a new phenomenon in society, people have been naming their cars, trains, and ships, for as long as they have been around. Humans have a tendency to attach themselves to items in their lives and project human qualities onto those items, and when they are mechanical +that humanisation is exacerbated.
There has been no major studies or research into the long-term effects of how this sort of relationship with robots will affect humanity, so for now we can only speculate. The reality is that as robots come closer and closer to human levels of operation and intelligence, the boundaries between humans and robots will become increasingly blurred. Moral and ethical issues are going to arise, alongside the complex relationships that we may build up with artificial intelligence in the workplace. However, until robots are capable of even simulating emotion, I believe we have nothing to fear regarding the potential psychiatric effects of long term living with robots and machines in our lives.
By Josh Hamilton