Emotional Hazards That Lurk Far From The Uncanny Valley

A web search for “Uncanny Valley” will retrieve a lot of information about that discomfort we feel when an artificial creation is eerily lifelike. The syndrome tells us a lot about both human psychology and design challenges ahead. What about the opposite, when machines are clearly machines? Are we all clear? It turns out the answer is “No” as [Christine Sunu] explained at a Hackaday Los Angeles meetup. (Video also embedded below.)

When we build a robot, we know what’s inside the enclosure. But people who don’t know tend to extrapolate too much based only on the simple behavior they could see. As [Christine] says, people “anthropomorphize at the drop of the hat” projecting emotions onto machines and feeling emotions in return. This happens even when machines are deliberately designed to be utilitarian. iRobot was surprised how many Roomba owners gave their robot vacuum names and treated them as family members. A similar eruption of human empathy occurred with Boston Dynamics video footage demonstrating their robot staying upright despite being pushed around.

In the case of a Roomba, this kind of emotional power is relatively harmless. In the case of robots doing dangerous work in place of human beings, such attachment may hinder robots from doing the job they were designed for. And even more worrisome, the fact there’s a power means there’s a potential for abuse. To illustrate one such potential, [Christine] brought up the Amazon Echo. The cylindrical puck is clearly a machine and serves as a point-of-sale terminal, yet people have started treating Alexa as their trusted home advisor. If Amazon should start monetizing this trust, would users realize what’s happening? Would they care?

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Robot Einstein could save humans from killbot destruction

einstein-robot

Earlier this year we saw the Einstein robot that is being developed to facilitate human facial emotions in robots. [David Hanson], the man in charge of this project, has given a TED talk on his work that includes a show-and-tell of his most recent progress. We’ve embedded the video after the break for your enjoyment.

The Einstein robot (head only in this video) shows off the ability to recognize and mimic the facial emotions of the person in front of it. There is also video of a Bladerunner-esque robot looking around a room, recognizing and remembering the faces of the people it sees. [David] makes a very interesting proclamation: he’s trying to teach robots empathy. He feels that there is a mountain of R&D money going into robots that can kill and not much for those that can sense human emotions. His hope is that if we can teach empathy, we might not be annihilated when robots become smarter than us.

That’s not such a bad idea. Any way you look at it, this talk is interesting and we wish the five-minute offering was five-times as long. But [Mr. Hanson’s] facial hair alone is worth clicking through to see.

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