Daniela Cerqui has specialised in establishing the link between human and machine and the acceptance of machines in our midst. She replies to our questions.
Do you see something positive in the presence of robots in the workplace?
The positive aspect everyone highlights is replacing humans to carry out repetitive or hazardous tasks, such as working on production lines or in mine clearance. This is something which happens, but the question is what value does this have? In theory, the leisure society beckons and we ought to have far more time for going to the beach. In actual fact, computers and robots have been working with or for us for over twenty years and we spend no more time at the beach now than we did before. And I now notice a dangerous shift: previously, we designed a machine and gave it a dull technical task to carry out; now, we also assign it the job of producing technical know-how.
So robots are dangerous and serve no purpose?
So what should we be asking?
We should ask what kind of society we want and what our idea of humanity is that we defend. Elderly people in medical and social care facilities in Japan can play with a robot in the shape of a furry baby seal which is capable of making facial expressions and sounds. It might be considered a terrific idea to create a bond with a machine which helps them feel better. I find it pathetic that an automaton has to take over providing the family and social bonds that we have abandoned.
What would it be like to have a robot as a colleague?
Already we’re all working with robots – or artificial intelligence, it’s the same thing. But we don’t notice the fact often enough because, to some extent, we have the illusion that a robot is a machine which resembles a human being. This is almost never the case – most often it’s a computer. So I don’t think it’s a problem for people to accept machine-colleagues. The issue which might be tricky is that of comparison. A robot will necessarily be ‘better’ when measured against the criteria of the world of work, where everything is quantified and so value is only accorded to what can be counted, whether it’s speed, performance, productivity. It’s not going to be very gratifying to compare oneself with such ‘perfection’. But once again, what we need is to question the criteria, not the human being’s capacity to fulfil them.
Generally speaking, how do human beings accept cohabiting with machines?
There are cultural differences. In Japan, for example, there is high acceptance. This is explained by their particular animist tradition: animals and objects have a soul, like humans, and so robots do as well. As a result, lots of anthropomorphic robots can be found there. In the West, there is no rejection of them in principle and machines are mostly accepted for the function they fulfil.
Is a robot more readily accepted when it appears human?
For Westerners, there is something called the ‘uncanny valley’. Schematically speaking, it may be said that people readily accept robots when it is clear they are not human. They can be humanoid up to a certain point, but when it is no longer possible to distinguish them from flesh and blood at first glance and doubt creeps in, then there is a powerful rejection – akin to fear – because of the feeling of strangeness. But artificial intelligence is very well accepted.
Is this also the case when, as with the robot psychologist that exists, a machine fulfils more of a ‘relational’ role?
Yes, and it’s not new. Since the beginnings of artificial intelligence, software has played this role in exchanges with patients. Although fairly basic – it has mostly asked questions in response to key words written by patients such as ‘mother’ or ‘dream’– Eliza [the robot psychologist] has been very well accepted by human beings.
iRobot, manufacturer of Roomba robot vacuum cleaners, says that some owners take their cleaner on holiday because it deserves a break, or unplug it when it has worked hard so it can rest. The manufacturer has revealed that soldiers who ‘collaborated’ with Warrior, one of its mine-clearance robots, begged for it to be repaired when it was blown up by a mine. They love it and don’t want a new one to replace it.
Well I’m delighted to hear it! This seems to me a sign of rebellion. The emotional bond remains strongest and is increasingly invested in when we choose not to make it all a matter of quantifying and efficiency. Nonetheless it is still pathetic that we’re at the stage of developing emotional ties with machines rather than with the people around us.