April 5, 2012
Every time I come home, my dog is so happy to see me that she literally runs in circles around the kitchen. Her happiness rubs off on me. I wonder if someday humans will bond with their robots the same way we bond with pets. Your first reaction to this idea is probably dismissive. Pets are alive, and that’s why we form bonds with them. A robot is nothing more than a clever tool. But just for fun, let’s reverse-engineer the emotional bond we have with pets.
Consider the impact of appearance. Dogs are absurdly cute, and that helps us bond with them. We like babies and attractive adults for the same reason. Humans are wired to respond to cuteness. At the moment, robots are not cute in the same way as dogs and babies. But it’s easy to imagine that situation changing as robot developers learn to make their products physically appealing. Someday robots will be soft and warm to the touch. And I would expect robots to move as naturally and unpredictably as animals within a few decades.
I can also imagine robots that appear to breathe while actually functioning as air filters for the home. And I would think that someday robots will have the same subtle smells and pheromones as living creatures.
Building a robot to imitate a person, as opposed to a dog, has an extra level of difficulty because human speech and intelligence are hard to mimic exactly. Building a robot dog is much easier. Perhaps your future robot dog will bark to get your attention if there’s an intruder, or the house is on fire, and it might softly whine when it needs a service call.
If you accept the notion that a robot dog can someday look, act, sound, and smell like the real thing, what else does it need to generate an emotional bond with a human? Will it matter that we know it isn’t alive?
Consider movies. A well-made movie generates strong emotions in people even though we know the movie screen is not alive. We know the actors are acting, and the story isn’t real, and still we have an emotional response. I believe our future robotic dogs will have the same impact on us as movies. We will always be aware of their non-living nature, but we’ll be helpless to resist forming emotional connections. If you doubt that humans can form emotional connections with objects, check out the stock price of Apple.
You’ve seen a lot of science fiction stories about our robot-filled future. Sometimes we can’t tell who is a robot and who is human. Sometimes the robots try to kill us. Sometimes the robots make us stupid because we learn to depend on them for all of the hard decisions. But I think the real danger from robots is in the emotional bonds humans will form with them. I fear that robots will be far better companions than pain-in-the-ass humans, and we’ll lose our incentive to reproduce. When robots become awesome and economical, no one will want to spend time with a smelly, inconvenient, annoying, overpriced human.
My prediction is that robots will eradicate humankind with love, not laser cannons.