Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why robots should care about their looks

As one movie reviewer points out, the Autobots and Decepticons in Transformers: Dark of the Moon “drool, bleed, have whiskers and even go bald with age.”

But what's going on beneath the surface? As real-life robots become increasingly sophisticated, how will we decide if they have enough of a sense of themselves to deserve certain levels of rights?

“It will be an interesting question, and it won’t be just an intellectual one,” says bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics. “A whole series of experiments show that if you create a robot that moves, but just looks like a whole bunch of gears, and you give someone a sledgehammer and say, ‘Smash it,’ they’ll smash it. If you put a little furry cover on it, so now it moves but it looks organic, they won’t hit it.”

Whenever a robot is more humanoid or more animal-like in appearance, people are more reluctant to harm it.

“We already have robots that in one sense or another are being treated more like animals,” Wolpe says. “As soon as you begin to give robots the appearance of life, people begin to project onto it the feelings that they project onto life.”

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  1. This is a fascinating issue that may become important if robots become sentient beings. But it is concerning that the academy embraces the concept of rights for inanimate objects, i.e., robots, but is yet to recognize the inherent rights of other animals. Other animals are sentient (something robots might not ever become) and yet they are still considered property legally. Wouldn't it be ironic if the rights of inanimate objects that happened to look alive were recognized before that of real living beings? This is cause for reflection, I think. - Lori Marino, Faculty Affiliate, Emory Center for Ethics

  2. FYI - The subtitle of the film is actually "Dark of the Moon". You're confusing it with Pink Floyd. :0)

  3. Re: The Pink Floyd "Dark Side" error. Thanks, robot hands have fixed it now.

  4. Is my tax dollar funding this??

  5. @ anon: Emory is a private university. :)