My robot, my friend?

Ethical issues arise as robots become more human

Dan Headrick
3 March 2014

4 min read

As robots begin to comfort disaster survivors, care for children and the elderly and serve as companions for the lonely, they increasingly offer the promise – and risk – of redefining human-machine relationships.

On August 3, 2013, a Japanese rocket ignited the pre-dawn sky at the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, carrying 3.5 tons of supplies in an unmanned cargo ship bound for the International Space Station and its six-person crew. 

Packed along with water, food, parts and tools was Kirobo, a 34-centimeter-tall robot resembling a child’s doll. But Kirobo is no toy; “he” is astronaut Koichi Wakata’s companion on the Space Station. Programmed to be sensitive to Wakata’s moods, Kirobo is Wakata’s ever-willing, always-learning Japanese conversationalist, designed to ease the stress of long space journeys.

Kirobo and his ground-based counterpart Mirata, part of the Kibo Robot Project, were built by scientists and engineers at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, in cooperation with Toyota Motor, Japan-based Robo Garage, and public relations firm Dentsu, to study human-robot interaction. Why? Kirobo answered that question in Japanese during a press event: “I want to help create a world where humans and robots can live together.”


In recent decades, faceless industrial robots have transformed modern manufacturing. Other machines – airline ticket kiosks, bank cash machines, automated grocery checkouts – have replaced social interactions with technology. But robots that learn, adapt, and entice humans to form emotional bonds with them challenge the very idea of what it means to be human.

Robots have been with us for decades, primarily as laborers whose attention never wavers, who never get bored doing repetitive tasks, and who never ask for vacations. But service robots help people directly. Professional-service robots are used mostly in military applications (more than 40% of the market), along with medical, logistics, construction and underwater applications. Personal domestic-service robots are used primarily for house cleaning, yard maintenance, entertainment, education and research.

At US$1.2 billion, the global market for personal-service robots is small, but unit shipments grew by 20% in 2012 over 2011, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), an industry trade group.


Robot researchers today are exploring the fullness of our human social environment: our humor and language, regional colloquialisms and cultural references, our moods and emotions, facial expressions and body language – even how we interact with the other machines we take for granted every day.




That research has fueled advances in evolutionary and adaptive learning and cognition technologies, autonomous systems with somatosensory control (a replication of the biological mechanism for everything our bodies feel) and intelligent sensing. IBM and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defense, are well on their way to developing a neuromorphic chip that mimics the neurons, synapses and connections in a mammal’s brain.

Researchers also are working with soft-tissue materials that mimic skin; the fluid articulation of the face; and the nuanced shades of emotion that we, as human beings, recognize in another person’s eyes and body language. The technology is advancing quickly, so scientists and engineers have joined with psychologists, sociologists, philosophers and legal scholars to explore the implications of a not-too-distant world in which robots and humans share social relationships.


Heather Knight owns Marilyn Monrobot Labs in New York City, NY (USA), and is a robot researcher for NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute.

Knight believes that robots can show that most alluring of human qualities: charisma. “Ideally they will not only project confidence, deference, interest, boredom or emotion when socially appropriate, but they’ll inspire us to want to have them around,” she wrote in Wired in April 2013.

“Children with autism are very attracted to robots,” said Dr. Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of artificial intelligence in the School of Computer Science at the UK’s University of Hertfordshire. Since 1998, Dautenhahn has studied the relationships autistic children form with robots and has concluded that the right robot can provide “a safe, predictable, nonjudgmental and enjoyable environment” for this special group.

The elderly are another group likely to bond with robots. Dautenhahn’s research examines how robots provide physical, cognitive and social assistance for the elderly in their homes, with a design focus on how to personalize social robots for individual users.

Paro, a therapeutic robot seal, was used to comfort residents of temporary housing in Kesennuma, Japan, following the March 2011 earthquake-tsunami disaster. (Image © Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP – Getty Images)




The first trials are already occurring in Japan. “Japan has the fastest-aging population in the world,” said Atsuo Takanishi, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Humanoid Robotics Institute at Waseda University. “In fact, Japan today may be the epicenter of personal robotics research and commercial development.”


Europeans like robots, too, according to a recent Eurobarometer poll, but many observers are raising questions about society’s readiness to integrate social robots. For example, critics recently have sounded alarms about the rising number of companies that want to market robots for child care.

“I am worried about a product marketed as a child-safe robot,” Dautenhahn said. “Many parents would really believe that (claim). We can’t pretend that robots can provide the emotional needs children must have.” 

Anniina Huttunen, a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Law in a Changing World and Institute of International Economic Law (KATTI) at the University of Helsinki, Finland, studies artificial intelligence and robotics. She said the rise of intelligent systems also raises questions of intellectual property rights, ownership and liability, such as who is responsible if a robot causes injury, the owner or the robot? Current law doesn’t say.

Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts (USA), has studied how people interact with machines for 30 years. In her latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle describes an unsettling trend in which people are delegating more human relations to robots, phones and computers. We have arrived at this robotic movement, she told an audience of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “not because we have built robots worthy of our company, but because we are ready for theirs.”


Meanwhile, space-companion Kirobo has captured the imaginations of Japanese children. By the time those children grow old, the concept of robots as companions likely will be commonplace, Dautenhahn said.

“The elderly of the future will have grown up with the iPhone, and their relation with technology will be different,” she said. “Acceptance will be more tolerant. The robot will be integrated rather than being just another gadget to operate.”

Robot designer Knight believes the integration has already begun. “We are already cyborgs, conjoined with our mobile phones, social-media identities, apps and automotive exoskeletons,” she writes. “We do not need robots as replacement lovers or friends – humans provide far more complexity. But robots make fantastic wingmen.” ◆

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