Monday, 28 April 2008

Relational Artefacts & Ubiquitous Robot Companions: Looking Forward to Social Robots

Does it seem difficult to imagine a robot as an authentic social companion? MIT’s Cynthia Breazeal (2001; Breazeal, 2003b), designer of an exceptional social robot, doesn’t. Her research shows that human social partners (of social robots) “generally apply a [human] social model when observing and interacting with autonomous robots.” Nor does Osaka University’s Hiroshi Ishiguro (2006), creator of perhaps the most sophisticated of all humanoid robots: “In our experience, the participants react to the android as if it were human even if they consciously recognize it as an android.” Indeed, policy shapers, sociologists, scientists, and engineers believe the time is close when interaction with functional, intelligent, and affective (Breazeal, 2002, 2003a; Brooks, 2002; Levy, 2007; Levy, 2006; Turkle et al., 2006) sociable robots will be an everyday occurrence. South Korea’s pioneering of a national Robot Ethics Charter reflects this confidence (Chang-Won, 2007; Yoon-Mi, 2007). Some regard social robots as a special medium of communication that affects the way we see ourselves and relate to others and “extend new possibilities for expression, communication and interaction in everyday life” (Mayer, 1999, p. 328; Zhao, 2006). But others question the moral veracity of human-robot relationships, suggesting that such associations risk psychological impoverishment (Kahn et al., 2004) or are disconcertingly inauthentic and therefore morally problematic (Turkle et al., 2006). What seems certain is that the emergence of social robots in everyday life will alter the nature and dynamics of social interaction and may ultimately give rise to a ‘synthetic social society’ (Zhao, 2006). Therefore, research is urgently needed to investigate the social and cultural impact of the coupling between humans and their machines.

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