Sociable Robots

moderator: Bruce Gellerman, Living on Earth
author: Cynthia Breazeal, Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Sherry Turkle, Program in Science, Technology, and Society, (STS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Oct. 10, 2011,   recorded: April 2008,   views: 4460

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Cynthia Breazeal makes social robots, machines with the capacity to interact with people on psychological terms. She says they “open up a new world of questions.” But these increasingly sophisticated devices make Sherry Turkle uneasy, since they challenge the idea of human relationships and the very “purpose, importance, of living things.”

Since inventing her famously expressive, anthropomorphic Kismet, a robot that engages and learns from people through auditory, facial and social cues, Breazeal has evolved her work using robots as a scientific tool for social understanding. Her labs are putting robots through the paces of major child development milestones, such as appreciating the mental states of others. For instance, robot Leonardo has rudimentary object permanence, inferring from a tricky human’s behavior where a Big Bird toy has been hidden.

Another project uses robots in home-based weight management studies, where they cue dieters to provide information on food intake, and provide moral support to wavering calorie counters. People form emotional attachments and name their robot partners, says Breazeal, and the robot method easily outperforms pen and paper, or computers, in helping people stick with their programs.

Another effort involves the Huggable, a teddy bear robot that acts via an internet connection to allow a distant grandparent to touch and play with the grandchildren -- “as a new kind of communication media.” And Breazeal provides a first-view of the MDS, a semi-autonomous robot that will combine state-of-the-art mobility, dexterity and social interaction.

This new species of extremely appealing, touchy, feely, humanoid machine puts Sherry Turkle on edge. She sees society on the verge of a “robotic moment,” as plugged in, instant messaging, virtual world denizens increasingly embrace machines as “creatures they feel a desire to connect with and nurture.” She believes people are passionately attaching themselves to sociable robots, and fantasizing a reciprocal interest from these machines. “You care about them and want them to care about you. Nurturance turns out to be the killer app in robotics.” She describes a graduate student who would gladly trade in her boyfriend for a robot exhibiting “caring human behavior.”

There is a danger that we’ll become accustomed to superficial cyber connections, and develop lower expectations for human to human interactions, says Turkle. Cyber intimacy may lead to cyber solitude. And you can turn off a robot when it bores you, or conversely, depend on it to “live” forever, while human relations come with endless baggage, complexities and sometimes unhappy endings. Says Turkle, “Roboticists have come to speak of ‘I Thou’ relationships with machines, but what is the value of interactions that contain no understanding of us and that contribute nothing to the shared store of human meaning? These are not questions with ready made answers.”

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