The New Breed: How to Think about Robots, by Kate Darling

Michael Marinetto applauds an attempt to consider the challenges of our technological future without lapsing into moral panic

八月 5, 2021
Robot dog
Source: Getty

In 1965, a young assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published a report for the RAND Corporation titled Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence. The man in question was the late philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, who later became a leading figure in American existentialism. Using German phenomenology, Dreyfus burst the bubble of growing hyperbole around AI research. For its proponents, AI was the future, but for Dreyfus, early breakthroughs were mere alchemy. “It’s like claiming that the first monkey that climbed a tree,” he wrote, “was making progress towards flight to the moon.”

The powerful AI lobby at MIT took a dim view of the report and its author. Dreyfus become a celebrity pariah at MIT. His application for tenure was stalled. Even more alarming was that Dreyfus’ colleagues who worked with the AI community refused to have lunch with him.

Kate Darling is a researcher at the MIT Media Lab and someone who works alongside AI researchers and roboticists. But if her new book is anything to go by, she would have had no qualms about lunching with Dreyfus.

The New Breed attempts to do for the ever-developing field of robotics research what Dreyfus tried to do for the inchoate field of AI back in the 1960s: to put the human back at the centre of our understanding of cutting-edge technologies. Although the software robotics of AI, which have dominated public debate about technology, feature in the book, it is largely about physical robots, since, we read, “their embodiment has some pretty unique effects”.

Though influenced by different academic traditions, The New Breed is part of the burgeoning market for “crossover” non-fiction – more at home in Waterstones than Blackwell’s. Yet there is much here that would appeal to specialist researchers, especially about the rich and diverse history of robotics and robotics research.

Of greatest value here is that Darling has written about the ethics of the future. Or, more accurately, she provides ethical insights into our collective fears and paranoias about a future society dominated by machines and technology – not so much the Anthropocene as the Technopocene. Such anxieties were named the “Frankenstein complex” by the prolific sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov (who, Darling reports, was “well known for groping women at conferences and driving female sci-fi writers out of the literary community”). Popular discourse, according to Darling, is dominated by this complex: “Headlines paint a dystopia of robot brothels and robot-run restaurants and hotels, a world where robots take all human jobs, and where our nannies and boyfriends are replaced by machines.” This potential Frankenstein dystopia may indeed be close to home. A recent article in Times Higher Education featured “Hua Zhibing”, a student who enrolled at one of China’s top universities, though Hua is a human-like virtual student powered by AI.

I can cope with AI-generated students – at least they will turn up to classes. The prospect of AI academics is another matter. Indeed it’s over the future of work, or rather jobs, that the Frankenstein complex is most acute. “How much automation disrupts and shifts the labor market is an incredibly complicated question,” writes Darling, “but it’s striking how much of our conversations mirror speculative fiction rather than what’s currently happening on the ground.” Her book employs current research from a range of disciplines to dispel popular dystopian myths about how superhuman robots are after our jobs.

Since the first practical robot was introduced into the workplace (Unimate, at a General Motors’ New Jersey factory during the 1960s), automation has not resulted in mass unemployment. There has been job displacement, especially in what Darling terms task-based jobs, but as the 2019 World Bank report on the future of work concluded, technology has created more work than it has destroyed. Human replacement by robots in jobs that are dirty, dull and dangerous should be welcomed. But modern robotics do produce externalities. What’s worrying for Darling is how robotic technology “can change jobs in ways that are invisible, threatening to add unintended burdens for the workers in the system and undervalue the work that humans do”. These concerns also affect our lives outside the workplace.

The new breed Darling is describing are coming out of the factories and “entering our…households, and public spaces”. We often don’t think about the way robots have penetrated the domestic sphere, probably because chatbots, robovacs and robomovers don’t give the impression of being robots or look like the sorts of robots we encounter in Star Wars or Doctor Who. There is also a generation of social robots used in therapy, education and social care. Japan has embraced “companion robots” with gusto, with girlfriend body pillows a popular phenomenon. This gave rise to a Frankenstein-as-a-sex-doll complex – it’s assumed that artificial companions are behind the falling birth rate and a lack of interest in dating.

Humanoid robot

Yet moral panic about such developments is misplaced. The fear that robots will not only replace us as employees but also as companions, carers and even lovers is, suggests Darling, part of “our inherent tendency to project life onto this technology”. But this humanising of robots dehumanises us, rendering us anxious and the victims of a false technological determinism. Rather than comparing robots to ourselves, Darling uses another familiar but more intellectually robust and ethically grounded analogy: robots as animals.

Although the prominence she gives to animals offers important insights, she is not claiming that animals and robots are the same. Yet the animal analogy can still shift the conversation around robotics and humans in significant ways, helping us to think creatively about how to design and use technology to promote human flourishing. “Just like animals,” Darling reminds us, “robots don’t need to be a one-to-one replacement for our jobs or relationships. Instead, robots can enable us to work and love in new ways.” Robots are used for minesweeping, and semiautonomous technology is able to reduce the risks of dangerous jobs such as mining. Another example is the Huggable – developed by Darling’s employer, the MIT Media Lab – which is now used at Boston Children’s Hospital to help young patients mitigate their anxieties and stress.

The animal analogy should assuage moral panic about robots as human replacements and help clarify what the book describes as “some of the actual ethical and political issues we will be facing as we begin to live alongside some of these machines”. “Don’t blame the robots,” Darling cries, but “company decisions driven by unbridled corporate capitalism”. When it comes to companion robots, she adds, what keeps her up at night “isn’t whether a sex robot will replace your partner, it’s whether the company that makes the sex robot can exploit you”. There are important choices to be made in how robots are designed, employed and used.

The final third of The New Breed takes a curious but important turn, using the animal analogy to discuss robot welfare. Great philosophers, from Aquinas to Kant to Locke, advocated animal welfare to protect human values, culture and beliefs on the grounds that “cruelty to animals is cruelty to humans”. Darling, like other contemporary thinkers, applies the same logic to robots: “Even if they themselves can’t feel, we might feel for them.” The psychological tendency to anthropomorphise both animals and robots is not wholly negative and can have an ethical outcome. The US military, not known for its sentimentality, has decorated bomb-disposal robots that have fallen in the line of duty. One troop even gave its robots three Purple Hearts and the honorary title of staff sergeant. Thinking about the welfare of robots is not anomalous but ultimately, argues Darling, “driven by our empathy for them”. Tantalisingly, she also predicts we may be “having interesting conversations about robot ‘abuse’ and maybe even robot rights”.

Michael Marinetto is reader in management at Cardiff University.

The New Breed: How to Think about Robots
By Kate Darling
Allen Lane, 336pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780241352991
Published 20 April 2021

The author

Kate Darling, a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab, was born in Rhode Island but moved to Switzerland when she was nine years old. She would go on to spend 20 years in the country, studying at law school and then for a doctorate at ETH Zurich and returning to the US, to live in Boston, only after that.

From the very beginning, Darling recalls, she was “drawn to interdisciplinary studies. I think it’s because I’ve always been fascinated by social and technical systems that shape human behaviour. That interest led me to law, then economics, and later technology, psychology and philosophy.”

Now a researcher in social robotics and human-robot interaction, including the emotional connection we often form with lifelike machines, Darling hopes to influence both technology companies and policymakers. She has also taught robot ethics at Harvard University and shares her home life with baby robot dinosaurs, a robot dog and baby seal robot as well as a robot assistant.

So what has she learned from such constant daily interactions?

“I’ve always loved robots,” she replies. “And through interacting with them, I became curious about a unique aspect: our tendency to treat them like they’re alive, even though we know that they’re just machines. I found lots of research documenting this effect and started wondering what this meant for society as robots move from behind factory walls into shared spaces.”

Asked about some of the common myths and anxieties about robots that she hopes to challenge, Darling points to “the self-fulfilling prophecy that robots can, will and should replace humans. And, of course, our science fictional fears around robots becoming conscious, taking over the world, and killing us all.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Replacement humans or humanity’s best friend?



  • 注册是免费的,而且十分便捷
  • 注册成功后,您每月可免费阅读3篇文章
  • 订阅我们的邮件
Please 登录 or 注册 to read this article.