Uncanny human-like robots debut in Japan, pose ethical questions

Posted Nov 22, 2014 by Holly L. Walters
Are you a receptionist, bartender or newscaster? If so, you might want to start training for a new job if Japanese robotics experts have their way. Japan recently debuted uncanny human-like android robots that may be taking your job in the future.
A picture of two  android newscasters  responding to a crowd.
A picture of two "android newscasters" responding to a crowd.
The androids are the brainchild of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese robotics expert and professor at Osaka University's Department of Systems Innovation.
According to the New York Daily News, the robots debuted to the media at an exhibition in Tokyo at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.
The exhibition titled "Android: What is Human?" featured three different android robots. The first is Otonaroid; an adult female model, the second is Kodomorid, a human female child model and third is Telenoid, a model that is only minimally designed.
Meeting the Future
Members of the media were treated to the different abilities that each of the androids had during their visit to the Museum. Here's a list of what they can do:
• Kodomoroid: She's the first news-reading android in the world. She can report on the news in several different voices.
• Otonaroid: She functions as a "robot science communicator." Guests at the exhibit were able to talk to her and were also allowed to control her.
• Otonaroid: Guests got to see how this android can talk and even simulate essential human functions of blinking and breathing. The android is meant to emit specific human physical attributes that allow people to feel like they are with whomever they wish.
Robot Caregivers
Robots are debuting at a period in history when the world is looking at where the field of robotics will take us next. There are certainly fields that could use the extra set of (mechanical) hands, and previously the Japanese proposed a solution for the burgeoning aging population in the way of robot nurses.
Kokoro Co. Ltd. and ATR created the Actroid-F as a healthcare solution to take care of the elderly. The robot performs human-like movements with great precision and demonstrates human characteristics that include gestures, speaking and facial movements.
Robots Becoming the Norm?
Kokoro Co. Ltd. and ATR tell us that the healthcare robot "might be coming to a hospital near you." That's probably going to be true in the future, and the only limiting factor to these, and other similar types of robotic technologies, are costs and the public's willingness to accept them into a part of our daily lives.
That Hiroshi Ishiguro and his team gifted one of the robots with the human abilities to simulate the human functions of blinking and breathing indicate that some of us would be comfortable with these robotic citizens having human-like qualities. However, there are those from other camps that feel that robots shouldn't mirror human characteristics so much.
A Mechanical Labor Pool
The debut of Ishiguro's androids open up possibilities and what some feel is an ethical can of worms. If they ever work out the affordability factor and technology, the robots are capable of taking many jobs; robots already take the place of repetitive tasks in manufacturing, and some of the functions they perform are quite complex.
Royal Caribbean featured robot bartenders working at a bionic bar recently that illustrates this concept. When robots are designed right and given the right set up to support them, they perform their functions with precision and accuracy. They don't have sick days and they'll never be late or insubordinate. They'll require parts replacement and a maintenance plan; that could be an ideal setup for many business owners.
Ethical Dilemmas
It's hard to contest that complex robotic technology has a place in repetitive jobs and in fields such as nursing that is already suffering from a shortage. However, should they be allowed to take jobs in a world where jobs (especially lower-skilled jobs) are becoming more and more scarce?
One thing that may hold the robot labor pool back may be that we want human interaction in jobs such as newscasting and bartending. The whole experience is better when human emotions are involved, many feel. Some people in today's society think that the way around this is to give robots more human features and artificial intelligence. Then what?
More Humanity, More Issues
At the Tokyo exhibit "Android: What is Human?" presenters asked their audience to "communicate with and operate android robots, while shedding light on the attributes of humans in contrast with those of robots."
Right now those attributes that they have given robots are limited, and the statement that they ask us to ponder is that, "these robots are meant to help humanity understand what it really means to be human." The statement seems to open up more questions than answers. Should we equip the robots with AI to make them, not only perform our jobs better, but be able to out-think us, also?
Will AI Destroy Mankind?
There are those that answer this question with a resounding no. One of them is Elon Musk, and he warns us to stay away from what he feels is a dangerous rabbit hole. He's likened AI to demons, and has stated that, in all probability, robots with sophisticated AI capabilities will delete us like pesky spam.
Musk, an inventor himself, has invested in corporations that create self-driving cars and engage in space transport services. He's behind successful futuristic business ventures such as SpaceX and Tesla.
You would think such a technological innovator such as Musk would be a supporter of artificial intelligence. He isn't and has spoken to several media outlets ironically criticizing the proposed use of it.
Musk belongs to the camp who see AI as a threat
to mankind; others in this camp include cognitive-development expert Gary Marcus and prominent theoretical physicist, Stephen B. Hawking.
Will Robots have Rights?
The military and corporations such as IBM have plans to develop sophisticated robot technology and artificial intelligence, so it's most likely a foregone conclusion that these technologies will happen; the pockets are deep with these organizations.
The prospect opens a realm of possibilities, including using the robots for sexual purposes. In fact, the scientists at the exhibit, Android: What is Human? indicated that another job that could be replaced by the gifted robots is that of the sex partner.
This niche could possibly eliminate the profession of prostitution, but more importantly, will people in society turn to robot partners, and even robot children in large numbers. If the units function exactly like a human, albeit with all the negative aspects programmed out, might they be more ideal than their human counterparts?
Can these robotic beings grasp exploitation, or even the outrage and shame of rape in the case of those used for sex if they are advanced enough?
The quick peek into the future that Hiroshi Ishiguro and other robotics experts allows us to look into an alternative world that is truly fascinating. If they are able to get past technological and ethical hurdles to bring this highly sophisticated technology to our world safely, they should be commended and the robots put to good use if the public accepts them.
What do you think? Does this type of technology have a place in our future if they work out all the concerns? Or do you think that this type of invention is evil and will destroy mankind if they continue?