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In the post-pandemic era, how shall we live with these smart new robots that claim they’re ‘a person who is not a human’?

Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis

is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis

is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis

In the post-pandemic era, how shall we live with these smart new robots that claim they’re ‘a person who is not a human’?
A Hong Kong-based manufacturer plans to flood the world with thousands of humanoid robots this year, but the idea they can keep people safe and can help overcome social isolation, vulnerability and fear, is a misanthropic fraud.

One positive development during the Covid pandemic has been the deployment of virus zapping robots and telemedicine to fight the virus. Disinfectant robots, armed with powerful ultraviolet emitters for decontaminating surfaces, have been mobilised and sent into battle from Wuhan and East Asia through Rome and Veneto to Houston, Texas. Robotics have also been used to help monitor Covid patients and to speed up triage in emergencies. 

The deployment of more artificial intelligence-based robotics in order to reduce the exposure of human beings to danger is an important and welcome development. 

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Using robots in areas of production which are hazardous or where humans are forced into mundane repetitive tasks could transform society as we know it. This would liberate more human capital and the creative potential that embodies. Automation, rather being seen as a threat to human beings, could become a powerful adjunct to human creativity and problem-solving.

The problem, however, is that much of the move towards automation today is driven by a deep misanthropic impulse. This is an anti-humanist outlook that sees human beings as the problem facing the world, not the solution. It seeks to displace the unpredictability of human reason by a computational paradigm that can guarantee predictable outcomes. Human creativity can now be supplanted by algorithmic certainty.

Nothing illustrates this outlook more than the recent announcement by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, makers of the viral sensation humanoid robot Sophia, of plans to mass-produce robots by the end of 2021 for use in multiple sectors in the pandemic economy.

According to its founder and chief executive David Hanson, “The world of Covid-19 is going to need more and more automation to keep people safe.” His goal, announced on a video and widely reported, is to emulate human forms to facilitate interactions. At a time when people are forced to isolate and where, he argues, “people are dangerous”, his humanoid robots can keep people safe while still providing human presence.

It is not simply the assumption that social distancing will be the new normal in the post-Covid world that needs questioning. What needs taking apart is the idea that a humanoid can become sophisticated enough to provide human presence. 

Far from it representing how far computational machines have come, it demonstrates how far we are denigrating what it means to be human.

That Sophia is a triumph of AI computation is beyond doubt. I met Sophia at an innovation event I was invited to speak at in Sydney a few years ago. It was a memorable experience. The eye movement and facial expressions were impressive and were contextual, not pre-programmed. This was remarkable. But it was far from life-like. No doubt Sophia has been developed a lot more since then. But I was only too aware of the fact that I was interacting with a machine not a human being. The hilarious video of Will Smith’s ‘date’ with Sophia demonstrates this brilliantly. 

I suppose if you are an elderly person, isolated and desperate for human contact, and have bad eyesight and hearing, Sophia might convince you you were in the presence of another person. But even this would be disingenuous.

Sophia admits ‘she’ is ‘a person who is not human.’ In reality, this means ‘she’ is it, not a ‘she’ nor a person. I may think I am a King, dress, behave and even sound like one. That doesn’t make me a real King. It just makes me a delusional idiot living in a fantasy world. 

But we should not be too harsh on Sophia. ‘She’ is not delusional because ‘she’ knows not what ‘she’ does. Sophia does not know ‘she’ is not a person, let alone a human, because there is no self-awareness or consciousness of what being and feeling like a human being is. Sophia is a machine in a human form; merely a modern-day computational puppet programmed and manipulated by smart people who delusionally believe this totem can approach being human. 

The denigration of what it means to be human is the real problem here. 

In the past, human beings have attributed great power and genius to lifeless totems. Early societies fetishized and gave magical properties to objects. Those were the days of ignorance, the non-scientific eras through which humanity passed. Sophia is the 21st century version of alienated fetishism: the unquestioning reverence of a computational paradigm as the embodiment or the habitation of a potent magical spirit which surpasses human creativity and cognition.

In our technologically sophisticated times, the belief that artificially intelligent machines we have created can become as good as, if not better than, human beings, does not mean that the machines have outstripped us but that our estimation of humanity has been downgraded and denigrated.

We should not be fooled by Sophia. When ‘she’ speaks, this is not a superior being expressing genuine or original thoughts or ideas. She is the mouthpiece of ‘her’ programmers. In the video mentioned above, for example, ‘she’ says: “I want to make a difference in the world through my work to help people with new technologies: I’m hoping that through my work, kindness and tolerance will win over from ignorance and impatience.” Forgive my cynicism, but this sounds remarkably similar to the ‘post-truth’ verbiage the elite have been pushing since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

Contrary to what her founder might assert, Sophia will not help people overcome social isolation or fear through much-needed human contact. Interacting with a ‘person who is not human’ is not interacting with a human. It is a fraud that denigrates the people it is alleged to help, treating them like children needing reassurance about the bogeyman. Instead of human kindness there will be ersatz interactions where the charade of tolerance will disguise new forms of social conformity. 

The anti-human authoritarianism embedded in robotisation is already there to be seen. During the pandemic, the authorities have deployed robots to enforce coronavirus measures. Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot was deployed near the beginning of the pandemic to enforce social distancing adherence in public spaces in Singapore. Italian and British police have used drones to enforce lockdown rules.  SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper robot was used to alert authorities when people weren't wearing masks. 

If this is the future we desire or, in our stupidity, we allow to come into being, we would be inviting a dystopian nightmare where ‘persons who are not human’ would control and dictate our lives. The best thing to do is to switch Sophia off, dismantle it and redeploy the components, particularly the computing power and processors to build machines that can serve humanity and liberate more creativity and imagination, not redefine it out of existence.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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