We Aren't Doing Enough to Prepare Ourselves for Robot Love

It's kind of a funny story—kind of. Soldiers are spending so much time with robots on the battlefield these days that they're starting to form relationships with them. They give them names. They give them hugs, a little brotherly love. Soldiers getting attached to their robots would be funny, if it weren't so dangerous.

The soldier scenario is well known at this point. Researcher Julie Carpenter published a report about soldiers' relationships with the Army's bomb disposal robots that revealed all of the above. Soldiers often named their robots, and when the robots got blown up, they held funerals. Some pretended the robots were their girlfriends. None of this seems like healthy behavior for soldiers who have jobs to do, jobs where lives are at stake. The study made its way around the web, everybody had a little laugh and turned their attention to more exciting robot news, like the latest mind-bending advance for the Atlas humanoid robot.

Carpenter's concerned. The bomb disposal robot saga is one thing, but looking ahead, our society as a whole is only going to use robots more as technology improves. We're about to buddy up with robots more than ever, and we have no idea what we're getting ourselves into. More specifically, we're spending a lot of time and resources building robots, but we're not educating ourselves or our society for how to deal emotionally with these very futuristic machines. Carpenter recently riffed on the topic of how we're preparing for a future where we might work side by side with automatons in an interview with Bard College's Center for the Drone. Carpenter gave this example:

Recently, the U.S. Special Operations Command issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for proposals and research in support of the development of Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS)—what the media refers to as the "Iron Man Suit." … Now, where is the BAA that asks for similar research proposals about the psychological aspects of the people actually wearing these proposed suits? In addition to any physical requirements that may be needed for wearing TALOS, what sort of person will be able to effectively use TALOS?

Good question. Indeed, we don't know very much at all about who's the best candidate for close work with robots. We're just now figuring out how to build robots we can work closely with! But there's certainly something to that Terminator-inspired anxiety over a future robot takeover. Is this because we're afraid that the robots will get too powerful? Or is it that we'll lose control over them?

Obviously, Carpenter isn't the only one thinking about these issues. Boing Boing's Maggie Koerth-Baker recently wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine about how robots win us over and what that means. We're sort of painting ourselves into a corner, she suggests:

Thanks to Human-Robot Interaction research, whatever social skills we program into robots in the future will be illusory and recursive: not intelligence, but human ingenuity put to use to exploit human credulity. By using technology to fool ourselves into thinking that technology is smart, we might put ourselves on the path to a confounding world, populated with objects that pit our instincts against our better judgment.

So what do you do if you think you're becoming too attached to a robot? Remember who's in charge. What can we do as a society to avoid that "path to a confounding world?" How about spend some time teaching people how to deal with robots, especially so that the soldiers we put into Iron Man suits know where to draw the line between man and machine. [Bard College]

Image via Flickr / redct