Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Why Humanoid Robots?


When robots appear as personal servants, what form (or forms) will they take? We already have many robotic servants—but not in human form. However, eventually human-like robots are inevitable.

Some robotic tasks are easily acceptable when performed by a non-humanoid robot, e.g., the Roomba. (It makes much more sense than a humanoid maid pushing a vacuum cleaner.)

Similarly, a robot lawnmower need not be humanoid, but a robot dog walker might. The future form of robotic servants will be mixed according to buyer’s preferences. Servants (and by extension, slaves) will be more easily commanded if they have human form.

The word anthropomorphize has been in use some 170 years, says the Merriam-Webster website. It also says the word means “to attribute human form or personality to things not human.” It predates the Greeks, who probably used a different word.

Anthropomorphize is what we do, what we’ve always done, without any need to give it a label. It’s part of our nature to attribute aspects of that nature to non-human objects and beings.

Not only do we grant them life and will, we give them personalities. We go so far as to attribute sexual orientation to many objects, e.g., ships are female. Early autos were called stubborn.

Beyond our proclivity to anthropomorphize, as Freud elaborated, we project our feelings, beliefs, and assumptions onto others. Different from anthropomorphism, projection can be subtle and more common.

In the mid-sixties, a computer program named ELZIA was written by Joseph Weizembaum to study natural language processing. It simulated the basic responses of a therapist.

The degree to which people, even people who knew it was a computer, immersed themselves in this interaction was astounding, and more than a little disturbing to its author.

In this very crude imitation of a therapy session, people not only projected a therapist’s insight onto the program, they told it incredibly personal details of their deepest secrets.

If we are comfortable treating objects as though they were human, why not give them human form? The real question, is how human? Can we risk robots capable of impersonating humans?

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