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The benefits and pitfalls of making robots act more like humans

Human-like robot
Franck V.


From the Jetsons’ Rosie to Data on Star Trek, robot companions have long held a special place in pop culture.

But now, artificial intelligence has moved off the screen and into our everyday lives.

From an autonomous helper for astronauts to Siri playing your favorite song when you ask, robots are increasingly intertwined into our workplaces and homes.

And as that happens, artificial intelligence is starting to look and sound more like real humans.

Lionel Robert is an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. He sat down with Stateside's Cynthia Canty to discuss the potential impact human-like robots could have on our society. 

Much of Robert’s research has focused on human acceptance of robots in the work place. Robert said we are making robots more human-like because a lot of research has shown that the more human a robot looks and acts, the more willing humans are to trust them.

On the other hand, human workers may also perceive human-like robots as a greater threat to their job. 

“It becomes easier to see how that robot is replacing your job or your friend, the more human it is,” Roberts said. “If the robot is sort of like a giant arm, well, you see it as a giant arm, no big deal. But if it actually has two legs and two hands and it’s walking around and talking, all the sudden it looks like a competitor.”

There have long been concerns of automation displacing human jobs, but Robert said there are some examples where robots, specifically those who are more advanced and human-like, are supporting workers. He points specifically to the healthcare industry and the military. 

“Those are two areas where someone's life is on the line, and when mistakes are made you can only hold a human accountable. So in those cases we want to design technology to support humans not to replace them,” Roberts said.

As human-like robots become a larger part of human society, we are faced with the question of how these advancements will affect our social norms. 

Roberts warns that when we humanize robots, we change our expectations of those robots and potentially of each other. 

“I think right now the push is to see if we can do it (humanize robots), thats the push,” Robert said.  “Everyone is trying to see if we can do it and leverage the benefits of it. I don’t think anyone is thinking about should we do it or what kind of problems its going to have.” 

One growing industry posing a series of ethical questions is sex with robots. 

“Now we know that sex with robots is a growing industry,” Robert said. “As these robots become more human-like, that's one particular industry that's going to benefit the most. But we never stopped to ask is that something that we really want? Is there harm to our societies when people begin to develop relationships with robots and not other people?”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

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