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A humanoid robot with a shopping trolley is shopping at a grocery store. Future concept with robotics and artificial intelligence. 3D rendering.
A humanoid robot with a shopping trolley is shopping at a grocery store. Future concept with robotics and artificial intelligence. 3D rendering.

Engineering Mag Editor Dislikes Androids That Make People “Feel”

That’s not really the job of a robot, says Evan Ackerman, who“hugs robots” himself

Evan Ackerman, a senior editor at the prominent engineering mag IEEE Spectrum, thinks — even though he “hugs robots” — that we don’t really need androids in daily life. Ackerman, who has a degree in Martian geology, focuses on “Nicola,” an android under development at Riken, a research institute in Japan, modeled on a boy and intended to ““to promote natural interactions with both adults and children.” So far, it is only a head.

The reason that this research was necessary is because androids can be tricky to read at times, especially when making expressions associated with negative emotions, which are more difficult to distinguish. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m so skeptical that androids are the best answer for human-robot interaction.

And if I were the Riken researchers, I’d also back off a little bit on the somewhat aspirational claim about robots making people “feel the heart.” Even more dubious is the assertion that they will play an active role in every aspect of our homes and society. Making people feel things is not particularly difficult for robots. There’s a bit of a leap, though, from feeling things to playing an active role in everything. Even now, robots that make us feel things can play very small, targeted roles in our homes and society. This is not to say that such roles aren’t important and effective and valuable, just that (and I’m sorry to have to keep saying this) we really need to make sure that we keep expectations realistic and grounded.

Evan Ackerman, “I Am Still Not Convinced That We Need Androids” at IEEE Spectrum (March 2, 2022)

Indeed. Humans can invent complex narratives around inanimate objects or imaginary friends, never mind an android created to seem like a human.

That doesn’t stop robotics engineers from trying, of course. Here’s another, much less charming, attempt from BilTek:

As we said earlier, we wouldn’t know there was such a thing as human emotions if this try were our only source of information.

Then there is Ameca by Engineered Arts:

Reactions were mixed.

A bigger policy question is the idea from Hanson Robotics that Sophia the Robot, retooled, could help with senior care by substituting for human companionship. But actual human companionship is vital in elder care; in any event, the elderly, at whom such an intervention is directed, may be less comfortable with robotics as an alternative to human interactions than some of the younger cohorts.

In any event, robotics is more fully integrated into society in some cultures than in others. In Japan, for example, where elaborate robotics has a distinguished history, a robot may preach a sermon in a Buddhist temple and there are funerals for robotic dogs that can’t be repaired:

It all reminds some of us of robotic cats. That is, why? A limited use case can be made for robotic pets for people with cognitive issues where it might be cruel to introduce a living animal.

But otherwise, if you want a robot cat (a feloid?), you want a feloid toy. If you want a cat, you want a cat, which is not a toy.

You may also wish to read: Boston Dynamics’ Famous Robot Dog Being Put to Work Long stalled in the area of research and development, “Spot” is now being prepared for its first job. It’s easy to imagine robots like this monitoring a large fraction of our infrastructure in the future, but some are using the technology to build weapons. (Jonathan Bartlett)

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Engineering Mag Editor Dislikes Androids That Make People “Feel”