Robots: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them

Authors: Aaron Marcus
Posted: Mon, May 04, 2015 - 10:05:20

Robots, androids/gynoids (female robots), and AI agents are all the rage these days...or all the dread, depending on your views. (In much of the discussion below, I shall refer to them collectively as robots for simplicity, since any disembodied AI agent with sufficient access to the world’s technology could arrange for human or non-human forms to represent itself.)

It seems one can’t avoid seeing a news article, editorial opinion, or popular opinion about them in social media every day, or a new movie appearing about them, now as primary characters, every week.

A recent article reports that China may have the most factory robots in the world by 2017 [1]. Another article reports that humanoid customer-service robots are starting service in Japan [2]. Still another reports that robots will serve next to human “co-workers” in factories [3], perhaps to re-assure human workers that they will not be completely replaced. Humanoid robots like the Japanese Honda Asimo have captured people’s imagination worldwide.

Recent movies have focused on robots, androids/gynoids, or non-embodied artificial intelligence agents as well, turning them into lead characters. We’re a long way from Maria the “maschinenmensch” of Metropolis or Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet turning them into lead characters, as in, Her, Chappi, and more recently Ex Machina or Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Movies have been “humanizing” and “cutifying” robots for years, ever since George Lucas made us laugh at/with the Laurel and Hardy characters of R2D2 and C3PO in the Star Wars movies of the late 1970s. In 2008’s Wall-E, this approach was taken to new heights of “adorableness”...perhaps technology is using Hollywood unconsciously to soften us up, making us think of them as friendly and non-threatening, allowing us to forget more ominous representatives from the Terminator series, Total Recall movies, I, Robot, or Avengers: Age of Ultron, perhaps preparing us for the coming wave of robots everywhere.

Although much of moviedom has focused recently on friendly robots and some news focuses on convenient use of drones to deliver packages to our homes, other more sinister signs have emerged. A recent national public radio (NPR) program focused on ethical issues. These included the rise of “killer robots” being developed by military in several countries. Should a killer robot incorporated into our armed forces be programmed to have compassion for a young child (and hesitation to fire upon someone) who has been given a lethal weapon by a female family member, as we saw in American Sniper?

That program also discussed the rise and use of sex robots in Japan, currently a “harmless” entertainment for (mostly) men. It seems there is no end to men’s ability to treat women as objects...and objects as women). This seems perhaps a less harmful way to make “comfort women” available to human (male) armed forces. The discussion of sex robots did recognize the potential for encouraging a-social or anti-social behavior in people. Some argue that the possibliity of sex/emotion robots for those unable to have “normal” relations with people might be helpful, but the discussants debated the value of offering child-aged sex robots for pedophiles. Ethical review, discussions, and potentially new laws seem in order. Such strategies are discussed in [4]. 

There seems likely to be growing interest and need for human-centered, sophisticated solutions to Human-Robot-Interaction (HRI) in all phases of their deployment. This represents a new age of HCI, where the “computer” has assumed human form and/or seems to exhibit human intelligence and personality. 

I was reminded by another public radio discussion recently of the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a discussion about being, consciousness, existence, thought. As with the earlier radio program, new issues seemed to pop up readily in my mind, and no doubt in others’. Some of these topics have probably been discussed elsewhere in the world, and resources/discussions are no doubt available on the Internet. I have not had time to pursue any/all of these:

  • Are most robots shown in Hollywood movies a product of Western culture? Does Asimo exhibit characteristics of Japanese culture? Will we see the emergence of cross-cultural similarities and differences of robots, androids, gynoids, and AI agents? What would a “Chinese” robot look like, speak like, and behave like? What would an “Indian” robot be like?

  • Should humans be allowed to marry robots? Should robots be allowed to marry humans? Should robots be allowed to marry each other? 

    Definitions of marriage are being hotly debated these days. If robots are sufficiently “intelligent” to be almost indistinguishable from humans, and humans fall in love with them (as depicted in Her), or vice-versa, ought we not to consider soon what the legal ramifications are for state and federal laws? At the end of Her, Samantha, the AI agent, abandons her human special friend and runs off with other AI agents because they are more intelligent and fun to play with. Is this one of several likely future scenarios?

  • How many spouses should a robot be allowed to have? Although past potentates had many, many today might argue that it is hard enough to manage the relationship with just one. However, AI agents seem much more capable. In Her, the AI agent Samantha admits to having “intimate,” “special” emotional relations (and at least attempting a form of physical relationship using a sex surrogate) with 641 people (male? female? both?) other than the human (male) lead character of the film, Theodore Twombly, and “she” talks to more than about 30,000 others. Might one advanced “female” AI marry 642 human beings? As for “mass marriages” of a group of people to another, I think the Catholic Church in approximately the 16th century introduced the concept of Christians (or Christian nuns) being married to Jesus, or to the Church, which today I believe still survives as a concept within the religion.

  • Can there be such a thing as a Jewish robot? Can a robot convert to some religion? Why or why not?

  • Won’t all the philosophers and thinkers of the past (Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Wittgenstein, Arendt, etc., to name a few) have to have their concepts, principles, and conclusions reconsidered in the light of robots asking the very same questions? Listening to a debate about the meaning of the terms of Heidegger caused me to think that Buber’s “I-Thou” concepts, Sartre’s existentialism, and Kantian moral/behavior-theory based on “categorical imperatives” may all have to be reconsidered in the light of non-human intelligence/actors in our society.

  • Can robots inherit our property and other assets? What happens to our human legacies with respect to property and other assets? Can robots be inheritors of trusts and family assets? If corporations in the U.S. are now like persons, will robots be far behind? Can/should they vote? What rights do they have?

  • Where are the senior robots? Most of the human-clad ones seem to look like the young, beautiful ladies on display in Ex Machina, which seems yet another 15- to 35-year-old male techie’s a-social, somewhat misogynist fantasy. Do robot women really need to wear 4-inch heels to be able to make eye-to-eye contact with their male overlords?

  • Are robots our “mind-children” and destined to replace us? Some are beginning to take this approach today, as indicated in numerous position papers, editorials, and feature articles. Perhaps we should, like mature parents, be grateful for our progeny and hope that they will remember and respect their past elders. I am reminded of an Egyptian papyrus from millenia ago that complained about the younger generation not giving enough respect to their seniors. Ah, the spirit of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, “I don’t get no respect!” may be transferred to the entire human race.

  • What exactly are the basic principles of HRI? Have they already been established in HCI? In general human-human relations? Which should we be aware of and/or worry about?

We are in the middle of experiencing a monumental change in technology and human thought, communication, and interaction, akin in significance to our actually encountering alien beings from other planets (which does not yet seem actually to have occurred in a widespread form, setting aside the few representatives of the Men in Black series), or the the reality of split-brain experiments first carried out in 1961, which exposed the possibility of more than one “person” residing inside our skulls.

Stay tuned for more challenges, fun, and games, as we enter the Robot Reality.


Portions of this blog are based on a chapter about robots in my forthcoming book HCI and User-Experience Design: Fast Forward to the Past, Present, and Future, Springer Verlag/London, September 2015, which in turn is based on my “Fast Forward” column that appeared in Interactions during 2002-2007.


1. Aeppel, Timothy (2015). “Why China May Have the Most Factory Robots in the World by 2017.” Wall Street Journal, 1 April 2015, p. D1.

2. Hongo, Jun, “Robotic Customer Service? In This Japanese Store, That’s the Point.” Wall Street Journal, 16 April 2015.

3. Hagerty, James R. (2015). “New Robots Designed to Be More Agile and Work Next to Humans: ABB introduces the YuMi robot at a trade fair in Germany.” Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2015. 

4. Blum, Gabriella, and Witten, Benjamin (2015). “New Threats Need New Laws.” Wall Street Journal, p. C3,  18 April 2015.

Posted in: on Mon, May 04, 2015 - 10:05:20

Aaron Marcus

Aaron Marcus is principal at Aaron Marcus and Associates (AM+A) in Berkeley, California.
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