It has become apparent that establishing an emotional relationship with or by means of a robot is a reality we will be facing in the not too distant future.
Starting a debate about how we use technology to care for people is probably the best way to approach the topic. A fear of the introduction of emotionless technologies which are lacking in humanity often feature in such discussions. A fear of purely logical, emotionless technology, of unthinking machines. Meanwhile, this is also accompanied by another fear: that we end up creating a technology which is so advanced that people will fall in love with it.
Perhaps the best approach when trying to make predictions as to the future is to start by taking a look at existing technology. Such a perspective allows us to understand the relationships we currently establish with technology. Everyone has experience of such a relationship on one level or another.
Firstly, focusing on the context of health, there is a widespread belief that teleassistance technology will eventually replace interactions with humans. The use of technology to remotely monitor blood sugar levels, blood pressure, monitor adherence to treatment, send a warning when a patient falls over or monitor their eating habits, can all evoke a sense of isolation. Often they conjure up an image of socially isolated individuals lacking in human contact. They also make one think of people surrounded by machines which only look after the individual’s physical needs, while ignoring the psychological, social and spiritual dimension.
However, these same technologies, which on the surface can appear cold and detached, can help the individual develop social ties and affective relationships, in certain circumstances, rather than provoking social isolation. A clear example is the mobile phone. A device which some people value more than any other object and even more than other people. This is easily observable when one sees the attention which people lavish upon it.
Aside from the simple appeal of possessing an exclusive, technologically advanced object, there is a certain appreciation of its functionality. Occasionally this functional aspect can lead to unhealthy behaviour: a fear of being unable to check one’s phone has been given a name, nomophobia. The majority of the time, however, a mobile phone allows people to communicate, to keep in touch with and take care of other people anywhere in the world, at any time of the day or night in a way which would otherwise be impossible. These two aspects, the material and the functional, are responsible for the fact that, for example, we return home if we’ve forgotten to pick up our phone in the morning. In other words, we find it extremely difficult to get through the day without having this tool in our pocket.
What is love exactly?
A good starting point is to consider the concept of love. According to the dictionary, ‘love’ is defined as: holding someone or something in high regard. It can also involve feeling affection for a person or object. With this definition in mind we can also observe that love exists on a spectrum and that ultimately it is the individual concerned who determines whether they love something or not and what he or she loves.
…but a robot?
The level of care, efficiency and therapeutic efficacy a machine provides is one thing, while the emotional link which an individual establishes with a robot is another thing all together. As we have seen, people are capable of forming a relationship with their mobile phones. Numerous experts believe that if technology contributes something of value to the user, they will be motivated to use it and consequently they will feel some affection for the object.
Interviews conducted in recent years with people who interact with robots on a daily basis can help us to examine such relationships. The interviews I shall mention correspond to different studies and were carried out with entirely different aims in mind.
First of all, there is the use of leisure robots, specifically a robot puppy and its master. Its owner, a 67-year-old male reveals that the robo-dog has radically changed his life. He states that the device generates a feeling of well-being, making him happier and keeping him entertained and that he would be unwilling to live without it. He sees his relationship as one of friendship, comparing it with the relationship people have with real dogs.
Second, we have the testimony of another middle-aged man who uses a robot vacuum cleaner. In this instance, the initial experience was a negative one. It was difficult for him to get used to how the robot worked and he would often lose his temper with the machine as it sometimes made a mess. He declared that in some instances he deliberately got home later in order to avoid having to clear up the mess the robot made. Finally, after a settling in period, the human-robot relationship has improved, but the respondent insists that for him it remains an merely an object. He declares that he would never be able to develop feelings for such a machine.
Current trends lead us to believe that in the coming years robots will become commonplace. They are already being used as babysitters, cleaners, personal assistants, sexbots, as mobility aids and so on.
By way of conclusion we could say that the majority of experts agree that we humans have the ability to reciprocate what we perceive we are receiving from the other. This means that if a robot is able to make us feel cared for, we may well return the feeling in the form of love. In a future in which developments in robotics will increase their applications and above all their capacity to interact with humans, it is easy to imagine that one day we will be able to love robots and will even mourn them when they are gone.
What can be done?
Unfortunately, there are no specific guidelines to help us correctly tackle the challenges which we face in the short term. Nevertheless, it is important that we ask ourselves the following questions:
Needless to say, none of these questions have easy answers. However, in the near future we will try to shed some light on some of them. Thinking about it is best way to provide us with better security and allow us to tackle the future of robotics more confidently.
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