This four-foot tall, sixty-one pound emotion-reading robot has futurists talking. Pepper the humanoid robot released in June of 2015 is designed to read and respond to moods in an intuitive manner and evolve along with its human counterparts. The robot has trickled into a few Japanese homes and Nestlé has plans to use Pepper as a way to interactively inform customers about their products in stores.
Pepper isn’t the only product in the works. Romeo, a version designed as a caregiver and companion for the elderly is also going to be a technological revolution. As these emotive robots begin to make appearances on the market and companions such as C-3PO become a more realistic concept as opposed to just the product of an alternate universe, we must question the risks alongside the benefits of this cutting age technology.
One of the first things that come to mind when considering these technological companions is why they might be needed in the first place, and what’s at stake for the humans that may become attached to them. “Our growing reliance on social technology rather than face to face interaction is thought to be making us feel more isolated,” writes Rebecca Harris in an article for the Independent that addresses loneliness in the developing world. In developed nations, the family unit has become decentralized leaving many people with a growing sense of loneliness.
In Nicaragua, I noticed, nursing homes are a foreign concept. Families live in close proximity to one another and they care for each other as they age. Caregivers and companions for the elderly are far from necessary. Are technological counterparts enough to fill the void people are experiencing in the developed world? Adrian Cheok argues that they will not: “There will be some people … that prefer robots over humans but I think that won’t be the majority. I think most people will prefer to have real human relationship.”
Robot technologies also beg the question of sex and romantic relationships. Already, consumers have been attempting to hack Pepper’s software and give it virtual breasts. Robotics ethicist Dr Kathleen Richardson says, “Everyone thinks because it’s a robot prostitute then real women and children in the industry won’t be harmed. But that’s not happened because if you don’t address the core idea that it’s not OK to reduce some human beings to things then all you do is add a new layer of complexity and complication and distortion to an already distorted relationship.”
There are certainly some core issues in our society regarding relationships, and like anything else, technology has the potential to perpetuate or to mend some problems. And while humanoid robots have their pros and cons, emotionless drones may soon have a greater role in the work place, leaving less-desirable jobs for us humans. Robots run on algorithms and can process vast amounts of data more quickly than humans can. And many companies have virtual work spaces the transition to robo bosses will be even easier for many people. But as Emmanuel Marot writes, “The sad news is, your next boss will have even less empathy than your current one. The good news is, it won’t have anything against you personally.”
With every advance in technology there is a sacrifice. In this case, the sacrifice happens to be human-to-human contact. But haven’t we already forfeited this expectation in our digital world?