New survey on public attitudes towards robots: comfortable or confused?

SO, the British Science Association has released a survey on the British public’s attitudes toward robotics and AI. Their headlines:

BSA w headline

  • 60% of people think that the use of robots or programmes equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) will lead to fewer jobs within ten years
  • 36% of the public believe that the development of AI poses a threat to the long term survival of humanity.

Some other highlights:

  • 46% oppose the idea of robots or AI being programmed with a personality

We would not trust robots to do some jobs…

  • 53% would not trust robots to perform surgery
  • 49% would not trust robots to drive public buses
  • 62% would not trust trust robots to fly commercial aircraft

but would trust them to do others:

  • 49% want robots to perform domestic tasks for the elderly or the disabled
  • 48% want robots to fly unmanned search and rescue missions
  • 45% want robots to fly unmanned military aircraft
  • 70% want robots to monitor crops

There are also results showing some predictable divisions along the lines of gender (only 17% of women are optimistic about the development of robots, whereas 28% of men are) and age (of 18-24 year olds, 55% could see robots as domestic servants in their household, 28% could see having a robot as a co-worker, and 10% could even imagine a robot being a friend).

A reply has come from the UK-RAS Network (the ESPRC-funded organisation representing academic bodies working in robotics and autonomous systems) that explains while there is need to examine these issues and carefully plan our future, there’s really nothing to worry about. They cite a European Commission report that shows there is no evidence for automisation having a negative (or a positive) impact on levels of human employment, and point to genuine benefits of robots in the workplace, suggesting how robots ‘can help protect jobs by preventing manufacturing moving from the UK to other countries, and by creating new skilled jobs related to building and servicing these systems.’

The popular press also seems to have seized upon the issue of robots and AI replacing human labour – though a lot of this in recent weeks has been in response to other studies and speeches. The Daily Mail, however, can always be relied upon to strike fear into the heart of its readers, and they haven’t disappointed. Though their rather restrained headline on the BSA study seems innocent, ‘Do you fear AI taking over? A third of people believe computers will pose a threat to humanity and more fear they’ll steal jobs‘, the article (again) resuscitates StephenDaily Mail again Hawking’s and Elon Musk’s dire warnings about the future threat posed by AI. In case this wasn’t sufficiently terrifying – and it really isn’t – The Mail slaps up another one of THOSE TERMINATOR PICTURES to accompany the article (right), with the helpful caption that ‘There are mounting fears among the public about the threat posed by artificial intelligence.’ Well, honestly, I’m sure no one can imagine why.

(Sigh.) Some needs to sit down with The Daily Mail’s photo editor and have a nice, long, very slow, chat.

But what does this survey tell us? Simply, that there is still a problem with people’s perceptions of robotics and AI that must be addressed, and it seems that we are not even heading in the right direction. A Eurobarometer survey on the public’s attitudes to robotics conducted in late 2014 shows that 64% then had a generally positive view of robots (which, if added to the 36% in the BSA survey that believes robots and AI are a threat to the future of humanity, just about accounts for everyone). In that 2014 study, however, just 36% of respondents thought that a robot could do their job, and only 4% thought that a robot could fully replace them, so clearly this is area of heightened concern. A 2013 Sciencewise survey reported almost exactly the same general results: 67% held a generally positive view (though  this survey reports that 90% would be uncomfortable with the idea of children or elderly parents being cared for by a robot, so compared to the 49% that want robots to help take care of the disabled and elderly in the latest study there might be some progress there… or else people are just so desperate to deal with an increasingly ageing population that they’re perfectly happy to dispense with their elderly relatives by dumping them with psychotic, genocidal toasters.) However, a 2012 Eurobarometer report told us that  as many as 70% of Europeans were generally positive about robots.

These comparisons are very rough and cannot tell us much without more rigorous analyses (and the BSA hasn’t provided a link to the full survey). But it shows that there has been little movement in attitudes towards robotics, and in fact an increase in anxiety that robots will displace more humans in the workforce . Without more specific scrutiny, it’s hard to say what we’ve got here. It could well be the case that what we have is very unremarkable. But though it may be encouraging to see that a majority of Europeans are consistently generally positive in their perception of robots and AI, there is still a sizeable minority that could prove very disruptive to the development of future applications of robotics and AI, whose anxieties cannot – and should not – be ignored.

One way to alleviate a great deal of these concerns, particularly regarding the loss of jobs, is to explicitly undertake to address what is emerging as the vital question in the public imagination: what this increasing automisation means for our societies? Because it is not in any way inevitable that more working robots and AI means more poverty for unemployed humans. We get to choose what the consequences are of this mechanisation; and these decisions will be taken by human beings, not left to the whims of sentient robots, or even the indifference of disembodied market forces. If we decide to divide the advantages of such automisation more equally (for example, with the introduction of a Universal Basic Income), then it could be a very good thing indeed. (It is worth remembering that two thirds (or more) of us don’t like their jobs anyway, so more robots could mean less drudgery and freedom for a disaffected workforce.)

Again, without more scrutiny, it is difficult to judge what these numbers mean. It seems to suggest that the public are very ambivalent about the forthcoming developments in robotics and AI: if 46% oppose the idea of robots or AI being programmed with a personality, then it could mean that around 54% of people could be perfectly fine with emotionally engaged robots. If half of us don’t want robots driving public buses (49%, according to the BSA survey), half might be happy for the them to do so.

We might look at this study and say that we are ambivalent about robots and AI – that means, not ‘indifferent’ (as ambivalent is often, incorrectly, taken to mean now), but that we have mixed feelings. However ,this could be a terrible misreading of the numbers. What if people aren’t deeply ambivalent, but radically schizophrenic? If 50% are reporting that they are worried, the other 50% might not be; they might even be very enthusiastic about the possibilities.

Again, there is no evidence in this study to support this notion, necessarily. There is clearly a need for more research into the specific concerns  – and their sources – in order to properly address these issues, and to understand these anxieties more thoroughly (which will need a very different sort of study). However, the cultural record offers some some unique insights. Because what films, for example, show us is that we are not at all indifferent to robots and AI, or ambivalent. There is no middle ground: when it comes to robots and AI, we are deeply terrified OR wildly optimistic; we seem to be convinced that robots will either spell certain doom for the human race or our last, our greatest, hope for salvation from all of the terrible things that threaten us (including, inevitably, other robots and ourselves).

Let’s look again at the Terminator. (And why not? since so many seem unable to leave it alone we might as well make good use of it.) The first, 1984 Terminator, for many embodies what it is we fear about robots: the relentless, unstoppable, rational monster, the sole purpose of which is to destroy of human life. But already in the next film, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Good Guy, posing as the only hope to save John Connor and our entire species, and subsequent instalments – including the aptly-named Terminator: Salvation and the latest Terminator: Genisys [sic] – build on this theme. In our cultural imaginations, robots are both to be feared and embraced, or are either genocidal psychopaths or benevolent messiahs.

Such diametrically opposed perceptions – such dread or aspiration – do not facilitate the sort of reasoned, rational debate that will be necessary to properly assess both the challenges and the opportunities that real robots and AI represent, outside the pages and reels of science fiction. And yet we are fed a steady diet of such vicissitudes. In my next post I’ll look at another example, when I finally get around to a full review of the latest Avengers offering, The Age of Ultron.


Raising the bar on AI

So the media last week was absolutely full of the latest Sure Sign that the robocalypse is immanent: apparently, Google-backed DeepMind have now managed to create an AI so very sophisticated that it has beat human champions at the ancient Chinese boardalphago-game of Go. DeepMind’s AlphaGo has defeated the European champion, which marks another important development in the progress of AI research, trumping IBM DeepBlue’s victory over Gary Kasparov at chess back in 1997: Go is, apparently, a much more difficult game for humans – and, it was thought, for computers – to master, due to its complexity and the need for players to recognise complex patterns.

I expected, when setting off to write a note about this achievement, to find the usual sources in the popular press, with their characteristically subtle declarations, heralding that the End of the Human Race is Nigh!; however, thankfully, responses seem to be more sanguine and muted. The British tabloids have even avoided using that picture of Terminator that almost invariably accompanies their reports on new developments in AI and robotics.

So perhaps this is a sign that things are changing, and that the popular press are becoming more sensible, and more responsible, in their technology reporting. (Lets see how many weeks – or even days – we can go without this sort of thing before claiming victory, or even that we’ve turned a significant corner.)

But there is a lot interesting about DeepMind’s success, from a cultural perspective, even if it hasn’t stirred the usual panic about the robopocalypse. It made me recall a conversation I had at an EURobotics event in Bristol in November. We humans, it seems, like to think that we’re special. And maybe the possibility that robots or AI are a threat to that special status is another reason why we are so afraid of them. Maybe we fear another blow to our narcissism, like when that crazy astronomer Copernicus spoiled things by showing that the earth wasn’t the centre of the Universe, or that Victorian poo-pooer Darwin demonstrated that we merely evolved on this earth and weren’t not placed here at the behest of some Divine Creator. Maybe we don’t really fear that robots and AI will destroy all of humanity – well, maybe we fear that, too – but maybe part of what we fear is that robots and AI will destroy another one of those special places we reserve for ourselves as unique beings amidst creation.

And yet our scientists aren’t going to let us sit wrapped in the warmth of our unique being. They keep pushing ahead and developing more and more sophisticated AI that threatens our… specialness. So how do we, as a culture, respond to such a persistent challenge? Like any good politician, it seems we have decided to confront the inevitability of our failure by constantly changing the rules.

Choose your sporting metaphor: we ‘move the goalposts‘, we ‘raise the bar’.

Once upon a time, it was enough for we humans to think of ourselves as the rational animal, the sole species on earth endowed with the capacity for reason. As evidence for reason as the basis for a unique status for humanity crumbled – thanks both to proof that other animals were capable of sophisticated thought and the lack of proof that humans were, in fact, rational – we tried to shift those goalposts. We then transformed ourselves into the symbolic animal, the sole species on earth endowed with the capacity to manipulate signs and represent.

Then we learned that whales, dolphins and all sorts of animals were communicating with each other all the time, even if we weren’t listening. And that’s before we taught chimps how to use sign language (for which Charleton Heston will never thank us).

And then computers arrived to make things even worse. After some early experiments with hulking machines that struggled to add 2 + 2, computers soon progressed to leave us in their wake. Computers can clearly think more accurately, and faster, than any human being. And they can solve complex mathematical equations, demonstrating that they are pretty adept with symbols.

Ah, BUT…

Watson_JeopardyHumans could find some solace in the comforting thought that computers were good and some things, yes, but they weren’t so smart. Not really. A computer would never beat a human being at chess, for example. Until in May 1997, when chess champion Gary Kasparov lost to IBM’s Deep Blue.  But that was always going to happen. A computer could never, we consoled ourselves, win at a game that required linguistic dexterity. Until 2011, when IBM’s Watson beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at Jeopardy!, the hit US game show. And now, Google’s DeepMind as conquered all, winning the hardest game we can imagine….

So what is interesting about DeepMind’s victory is how human beings have responded – again – to the challenges of our self-conception posed by robots and AI. Because if we were under any illusion that we were special, alone among gods’ creations as a thinking animal, or a symbolising animal, or a playing animal, that status as been usurped by our own progeny, again and again, in that all-too familiar Greek-Frankenstein-Freudian way.

Animal rationabile had to give way to animal symbolicum, who in turn gave way to animal ludens… what’s left now for poor, biologically-limited humanity?

data does shakespeareA glimpse of our answer to this latest provocation can be seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation: Lieutenant Commander Data is a self-aware android with cognitive abilities far beyond that of any human being. And yet, despite these tremendous capabilities, Data is always regarded – by himself and all the humans around him – as tragically, inevitably, inferior, as less than human. Despite the lessons in Shakespeare and sermons on human romantic ideals from his mentor, the ship’s captain Jean-Luc Picard, Data is doomed to be forever inferior to humans.

It seems that now AI can think and solve problems as well as humans, we’ve raised the bar again, changing the definition of ‘human’ to preserve our unique, privileged status.

We might now be animal permotionem – the emotional animal – except while that would be fine for distinguishing between us and robots, at least until we upload the elusive ‘consciousness.dat’ file (as in Neill Blomkamp’s recent film, Chappie)  this new moniker won’t help us remain distinct from the rest of the animals, because to be an emotional animal, to be a creature ruled by impulse and feeling, is.. to just be an animal, according to all of our previous definitions. (We’ve sort of painted ourselves into a corner with that one.)

We might find some refuge, then, following Gene Roddenberry’s  example, in the notion of humans as unique animal artis, the animals that create, or engage in artistic work.

(The clever among you will have realised some time ago that I’m no classical scholar and that my attempts to feign Latin fell apart some time ago. Artis  seems to imply something more akin to ‘skill’, which robots could arguably have already achieved; ars simply means ‘technique’ or ‘science’. Neither really captures what I’m trying to get at; suggestions are more than welcome below, please.)

The idea that human beings are defined by a particular creative impulse is not terribly new; attempts to redefine ‘the human’ along these lines have been evident since the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, if we flip back one hundred years ago, we might see Freud defining human beings (civilised human beings, of course, we should clarify) as uniquely able to follow rules. But by the late 1960s, Freud’s descendants, such as British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, are arguing almost the exact opposite – that what makes us human is creativity, the ability to fully participate in our being in an engaged, productive way. (I will doubtless continue this thought in a later post, as psychoanalysis is a theoretical model very close to my heart.)

What’s a poor AI to do? It was once enough for an artificial intelligence to be sufficiently impressive, maybe even deemed ‘human’, if it could prove capable of reason, or symbolic representations, or win at chess, or Jeopardy!, or Go. Now, we expect nothing less than Laurence Olivier, Lord Byron and Jackson Pollack, all in one.

(How far away is AI under this measure? Is this any good? Or this? Maybe this?)

This reminds me of Chris Columbus’s 1999 film Bicentennial Man (based, of course, on a story by Isaac Asimov). Robin Williams’s Andrew Martin begins his… ‘life’, for lack of a better word… as a simple robot, who over the decades becomes more and more like a human – he becomes sentient, he demonstrates artistic skill, he learns to feel genuine emotion, etc.. At each stage, it seems, he hopes that he will be recognised as being at least on par with humans. No, he’s told at first, you’re not sentient. Then, when he’s sentient, he’s told he cannot feel. Then he’s told he cannot love. No achievement, it seems, is enough.

bicentennial_man_prog_1600x900Even once he has achieved just about everything, and become like a human in every respect- or perhaps even ”superhuman’ – he is told that it is too much, that he has to be less than he is. In an almost a complete reversal of the Aristotelian notion of the thinking, superior animal, Andrew is told that he has to make mistakes. He is too perfect. He cannot be homo sapien – he needs to be homo errat – the man that screws up. To err is human, or perhaps in this case, to err defines the human. (Though artificial intelligence will not long be on to this as well, as suggested in another of Asimov’s stories.)

It is not until Andrew is on his deathbed and is drawing his very last breaths that the Speaker of the World Congress declares, finally, that the world will recognise Andrew as a human.

And perhaps this will be the final line; this is perhaps the one definition of human that will endure and see out every single challenge posed by robots and artificial intelligence, no matter the level of technological progress, and regardless of how far artificial life leaves human beings behind: we will be homo mortuum. The rational animal that can die.

If Singularity enthusiasts and doomsayers alike are to be believed, this inevitable self-conception is not long off. Though perhaps humans’ greatest strength – the ability to adapt, and the talent to re-invent ourselves – might mean that there’s some life in the old species yet. Regardless, it will serve us very well to create a conception of both ourselves and of artificial life forms that try to demarcate the boundaries, and decide when these boundaries might be crossed, and what the implications will be for crossing that line.

First thoughts on Humans, Episode 1

HumansWell, that was something, wasn’t it?

It is fair to say that I was very impressed with Channel 4’s new sci-fi offering, Humans. And judging by the fact that it was Channel 4’s biggest ratings success in a decade, so were many of you. The critical response, too, seems overwhelmingly positive. (See here, for example. And here. Here too, but less so, though I like ‘conceptual overload’, as I will soon demonstrate.)

I was so furiously tweeting throughout the programme that I almost missed the show altogether. #Humans was the #1 trending topic for some time on Sunday night.

There were some less impressed, of course, but claims that it’s a ‘poor man’s Ex_Machina‘ or Blade Runner I think are wide of the mark. It might not be as glossy, but Humans doesn’t need to be. Without taking anything away from Alex Garland’s film (a review of which I offered heHumans 2re), Humans has terrific performances, and as a series, will have the room to breathe and examine not only its characters in more depth, but also the ideas, issues and concerns we have about robots at greater length and, hopefully, with more ambivalence and nuance.

For example, and by way of introducing some issues you may want to think about for the rest of the series (call it, if you like, ‘Dreaming Robots Study Guide to Humans‘):

  • Early in the programme, when Laura (Katherine Parkinson) arrives at the train station, we see many Synths working around the city, mostly engaged in menial tasks: checking tickets, carrying luggage, picking up rubbish. So, as many people are asking today: to what extent might we expect – or fear – robots that are more like humans will take over human jobs? OR, should we welcome these opportunities, letting the robots assuming more of our mundane tasks so that, as it was suggested in Humans, we humans can be less like machines and more like… humans?

(I suspect that this might become a trickier question as the series progresses; it’s already been foreshadowed that we’ll see Synth taking over humans in emotional capacities, too.)

  • The man being interview by Krishnan Guru-Murthy says that the ‘Asimov lock in their programming mean that they simply aren’t able to do us any harm.’  Is that enough for you? Do you imagine that, were Asimov’s laws of robotics programmed into machines, you would feel that was enough to keep robots on our side? (given that most of Asimov’s stories are about a failure of the laws in some way or another…)
  • Given the apparent inevitability of human nature, that we will take any new technological development and employ it to satisfy our sexual urges, what – if any – limitations or ethical constraints would we wish to put on our use of ‘sex-bots’? Beyond answering the obvious question (Would you? Would you? nudge nudge wink wink, eh?), what are the consequences of more… intimate human-robot interactions on human-human interactions? What effect might the availability of sex-slave robots have not only on human sexuality, but on how we relate to one another as human?

Those are just some questions for now; I have no doubt that subsequent episodes will raise more complex twists to these questions, and/or new issues altogether. And I, for one, am really looking forward to it.

Feel free to post below your thoughts – let’s try to have a meaningful conversation about our future with robots, one that goes beyond the usual scaremongering, misinformed headlines.

Get ready for… ‘Humans’

Since we first got wind of the Swedish series Real Humans, we at Dreaming Robots have long been longing for the début of the UK version (though we’d still like to see the original sometime, I hope someone is listening…)

Wait no longer.

Humans gets its premier tomorrow night in the UK on Channel 4. And it looks as though it will live up to its promise, conveyed in a super-slick marketing campaign. (See the very-real looking ads, below, and the trailer, at the bottom.)

persona synthetics

Reviews will follow soon after. However, you can follow all the action live as a team from Sheffield Robotics (@ShefRobotics) will be tweeting live during the first episode, including our Director, Tony Prescott (@tonyjprescott) and, of course your very own @DreamingRobots. And more, to be sure. Follow us (link on the right) to keep up with all the action.

Watch the programme and follow #humans for commentary. We’re hoping for a great hour of television!



Dreaming Robots on the CSN Blog

Busy times here at Dreaming Robots, what with so many movies featuring our mechanical friends having been released this year. We’re trying to keep up, making sense of it all as we go – hopefully soon you’ll able to see in this space the delightful results of all of our hard work.

In the meantime, Michael has been kept busy writing over at the Convergent Science Network Blog, the latest edition being a short piece looking at how our conceptions of robots are being transformed from villain to hero (but why this might not be all good news).

This is particularly topical at the moment with the recent release of Avengers: Age of Ultron – watch this space for a summary of that film.


Oh you two…

Another Terminator.

Never being a paper to miss out on an opportunity to hyperbolise new robot technologies, The Daily Mail have done it again, welcoming yet another Technological Threat to Humankind on its pages today.

Despite, as they themselves report, the Atlas robot being

built to help respond to disasters, such as the Fukushima nuclear reaction meltdown in Japan in 2011

and as they also begrudgingly accept, it still lacks a brain,

it looks like it could easily star in the Terminator films. 

In case the photo accompanying the press release doesn’t look scary enough, they’ve even helpfully supplied a picture to better illustrate why you completely and absolutely need to be afraid of this new threat to human existence!

Can you spot which is the new (real) robot designed to help in emergency situations, and the humanoid machine (fantasy) designed by Skynet to wipe humanity from the face of the earth? (No? Hint: look at the eyes.) [Editor’s note: I wonder how much The Mail pays per year to use that photo? They certainly try to get their money’s worth.]
The Mail are not, of course, alone in proclaiming the development of the ‘real-life Terminator’ (though they just happen to be the news source I hate the most, so this is all very convenient.)
This could, and probably should, all be written off as more of The Mail’s pathetic paranoia and dissemination of misinformation, except for the uncomfortable fact that Atlas has been designed by DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose explicit mission is to ‘maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military’ and whose other projects include unmanned aerial drones, more unmanned aerial drones, yet more unmanned aerial drones, unnamed anti-submarine vessels, exoskeletons for soldiers… you get the idea.

Call for Art Works

Living Machines: The 2nd International Conference on Biomimetic Robotics and Biohybrid Systems

A Convergent Science Network Event

Exhibition, 1st August 2013
Level 1 Galleries, The Science Museum, London

Deadline for proposals, 30th June 2013

This 1-day exhibition will include a range of novel biomimetic and biohybrid technologies many of which have not been exhibited in public before.  Contributions are being assembled from across Europe and include examples of state-of-the-art research from Imperial College London, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Sheffield Centre for Robotics, the University of Pompeu Fabre (Barcelona), the Italian Institute of Technology, Engineered Arts, and Shadow Robotics

Current highlights of the exhibition include:

• A live musical performance featuring a humanoid robot
• Mammal-like robots with whiskered touch systems
• Robot swarms whose behaviour is more than the sum of its parts
• A robot mode model of ‘trace’ fossils from the dawn of life  
• Music composed by a bio-inspired computer programme that mimics natural selection
• Plant-like robots that grow and change shape
• Biomimetic medical devices
• A robot that powers itself by digesting insects
• A moth-like blimp that follows people by smell
• Micro-flying robots
• Robothespian—an interactive multi-lingual humanoid
• Wearable computing for finding your way in darkness  

Contributions to the exhibition are invited from artists working in all media on works that have a biomimetic or biohybrid theme.