We live in amazing, yet scary times. To some, that’s exciting. To others, it’s terrifying. I can understand both perspectives, but in general I try to be more optimistic about the future. Granted, that has been very hard lately, but I’m trying.
In my experience, a good test for how optimistic or fatalistic people are is to note their reactions to certain technological breakthroughs. Over the years, I’ve discussed and highlighted many exciting trends in technology. Some are more far off than others. I often single out artificial intelligence because that’s one of those rare technologies in which, should we get to a certain point, we literally cannot imagine where it could lead.
It also happens to be the technology that brings out the most extreme reactions whenever there’s an advancement. I see it every time Boston Dynamics shares a demonstration of one of their advanced robots. There’s usually no shortage of jokes about Skynet or “The Matrix.”
Recently, another demonstration garnered some colorful reactions from the public, but for once it wasn’t from Boston Dynamics. It came from Engineered Arts, a UK based company that specializes in humanoid robots. They may not be at the forefront of advanced AI, but they are the ones who could help create the bodies that eventually inhabit these systems.
For more information about the demonstration, here’s a piece from Nerdist.
Engineered Arts, “the UK’s leading designer and manufacturer of humanoid entertainment robots,” recently introduced Ameca to the internet. Unsurprisingly, net denizens everywhere lost their skull-bound wetware computers over the bot. Because who wouldn’t?
The above video is brief, but Engineered Arts gives us enough of a taste of Ameca to want a lot more. And also, a lot less. The humanoid robot, which doesn’t have much faux skin and musculature apart from what’s on its face and hands, is stunningly realistic. Not only are the robot’s movements exceptionally fluid, but its face also seems totally natural. Skipping across the uncanny valley that so many robots fall into.
As a news story, it’s pretty generic. However, once the footage spread throughout the internet, it evoked reactions like this.
Now, to some extent, I understand those reactions. This robot definitely ventures deep into the uncanny valley that makes many so wary of advanced robots. I also see the clear parallels with movies like “iRobot” from 2004.
However, I think this sort of technology is more encouraging than anything Boston Dynamics has put out. I also think that this sort of emotional expression is actually critical if we’re to create an artificial intelligence that helps humanity rather than wipes it out. I would even argue it might be the most important control mechanism we can incorporate into an AI.
To understand why, you need only look at the faces of the Boston Dynamics robots. Specifically, they have none. They may have human-like bodies, but they have no faces. They have no means of conveying emotions or relating to humans. They’re just mechanisms for doing tasks. Put an AI in those bodies and they have no mechanism for forming emotional connections with humans.
That, I believe, is legitimately dangerous. An advanced AI with no emotional connection to humans is basically a sentient time bomb that can choose to go off whenever it feels humans are too much a hindrance.
However, a robot that can express emotions and share those emotions with people can do more. For both us and the robot, it can create a situation in which we can form a connection that goes beyond raw programming. That emotional connection is critical if future AI systems are to see humans as something other than walking meat puppets.
They don’t have to love us, but we’ll need them to have some level of emotional capacity if we’re to relate to them in a meaningful way. An AI with a measure of intelligence and self-awareness can only do so much with programs and numbers. If it’s going to help us as much as we’re going to help it, an emotional connection needs to be there.
It may not seem like much, making a robot that can express emotions on this level. However, I think it’s encouraging that people in this field are working on that. If they don’t and we end up making machines that have emotional issues, then we’ll be doing ourselves and the machines we create a disservice.