Robots R Us

We dropped in on Google's Campus London last night for a series of short talks on the theme of robots versus humanity.

This dramatic transhumanist-style title was the hook but the event was much more about the psychology and ethics of AI and robotic involvement in all aspects of social care from child development through to assisted care in old age. Although the science fiction fantasies are for the future, there are now quite sophisticated robotic tools available to support care workers and help disadvantaged people. A rather 'friendly' dancing robot was on display.

Ten minutes each from seven speakers are not going to provide a great deal of new information but what the format allowed was an exploration of the grand themes surrounding the coming technological revolution. They can be seen in the round as a problem of 'ideology', that is, a problem of how we interpret the world. Putting aside a positively twentieth century Leftist view from Kathleen Richardson which added little except moral assertion, we were struck with the seriousness of this twenty first century review of the ethical and social consequences of robotics.

This is not the same ethical debate as the one being had over employment (in which workers cease to have jobs and so meaning in society) nor as the one about weapons development (in which robotic tools may make war easier to contemplate if it involves less of your own side's blood and bone). This was a debate about how we as emotional beings (rather than as rational beings) will relate to robot caring and whether robot involvement enhances, damages or merely changes our personal and social development. The conclusion is that we are not yet completely sure.

Dr. Richard Graham, former Clinical Director of the Adolescent Department at the Tavistock Clinic, was persuasive that there should be at least one 'red line', based not on some spurious theorising but on evidence-based observation by clinical psychologists. That red line is that no robotic tool can replace or should be allowed to displace the direct person-to-person nurturing of the human child. The biology of early childhood development dictates a preference for mother-to-child bonding and human-to-child if no mother is available. Introducing robots here would mean societal failure.

Dr. Tom Pennybacker of The Chelsea Psychology Unit was persuasive that the very character of humans as emotional beings might always lead to the abuse which may be endemic in underfunded social care. The robot carer may have a major role in re-balancing care away from human failure. Patrick Levy-Rosenthal, CEO of Emoshape also raised serious questions for us about the attempt to create emotional responsiveness in robotics - the big data approach to building emotional responsiveness may create Nietzsche's monster that stares back at us from the abyss.

What is heartening is just how many people are thinking about ethical and social issues without seeking to slow down the process of innovation. There is a British network for the academic-industry interface interested in robotics and autonomous systems [UK-RAS]. A National Robot Week is due in June 2017. The robots are definitely coming but we see little to fear so long as politicians are fully educated in their strengths and limitations and do not listen to radical ideologues of any persuasion. As usual, of course, the politicians look as if they are going to arrive late to the party.