Does a Robot Need to Be Cute?

Of all the gripping news stories that broke this week, the one I’ve found myself following most closely is the humanitarian crises of the thousands of children who’ve crossed the U.S. border illegally in a desperate search to reunite with family.

Which is why it might be worth considering what you would do if you saw a small being, say the size of an average six year old in ill-fitting garb standing on the side of the highway, thumb out, hitchhiking. Would you stop and give this transient a ride?

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Would the color of its skin make a difference? What if it were dark skinned? Light skinned? Its skin were a different shade than yours? Or what about if it had a metallic sheen and a whimsical sense of humor?

I ask this because this week, a robot named Hitchbot is setting off on a potentially perilous journey. Hitchbot who appears to be the size of first grader has been outfitted with an engaging sense of humor and a child’s bright rain boots and gloves. Not unlike a child, Hitchy has been designed with no ability to defend itself from harm. The idea behind this is an experiment in understanding how much empathy people can develop for an adorkable robot.

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Here is an (edited) excerpt from Hitchbot’s blog:

I am Hitchbot—a robot from Port Credit, Ontario. I was conceived by David Smith and Frauke Zeller, two professors. This summer I will be traveling across Canada. I am hoping to make new friends and see new places along the way. Robots cannot get driver’s licences (note: license was spelled incorrectly on the blog; a mistake or a clever humanizing touch, not sure) yet, so I’ll be hitchhiking my entire way. I love meeting people and never pass up any opportunities to bake desserts. I have been planning my trip with the help of my big family of researchers in Toronto. If you see me by the side of the road, pick me up and help me make my way across the country!

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Who can resist such an infectious personality?

But what is the end game here, and what are the unintended consequences of imbuing a robotic device with cuteness?

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During the last several decades, scientists and engineers have been devoting energy to what was considered the most important area of exploration in human-robot interaction, how to program computers and robots with compassion for humans so as to avoid inadvertent or conscious mishaps. Someone might have been reading a bit too much Isaac Asimov. However, the most important trend to track might actually be the amount of empathy we are developing for our technology contrasted with the erosion of empathy for our fellow humans. Empathy levels are down as our reliance on tech is up. Research out of the University of Toledo this summer decisively connects the dulling of areas in the brain responsible for empathy to repeated exposure to violent video games. It’s worth noting that Pew has found that 99% of America’s young boys and 94% of girls regularly spend time gaming.

Other new studies have been showing unexpected findings, like soldiers feeling protective of robots that go into dismantle weaponry, and homemakers with emotional attachments to their robotic vacuums. Of course, this might not sound surprising considering that there is a sizable population that has developed meaningful, long-term relationships with love dolls. The high-waist-panted future as depicted in Spike Jonze’s film, “Her,” might not be so far away, after all.

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But what would have to happen before robots could become fully integrated into our society? In The New York Times this week, Kent Massey, the director of advanced programs at HDT Robotics, addressed this question by stating, “Robots must become more like people.” If there is a successful integration, we know the additional jobs they will perform for us, much like the manufacturing robots already in our midst, will be ones that have traditionally held by our immigrant labor pool both legal and illegal, possibly the parents and family members of the immigrant children being held in the detention centers.

Before you call the Immigrant Alliance Against Defamation on me, I hasten to note that I didn’t make this connection between the influx of kids and robots. I read about it in comments posted at this week.

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Consider this comment: “How about we start with wholesale genocide of every damned illegal alien in this country? That will free up a lot of jobs and welfare money. I am fed up and I no longer care if it is kids or not.” It sparked a lively discussion of how even though a low-wage workforce of robots requires massive infrastructure and maintenance, it might be better to invest in that than in these children who would potentially fill these jobs as they strive to rise economically. You can find threads like this also on Reddit. And in case you missed it, David Frum wrote about the nexus between robots and immigration right here.

Here’s another heartstrings-tugging excerpt from Hitchy’s journal:

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I’m quite nervous because I’ll be hitchhiking alone. I’ll need to consider what to pack. I’ll also need to consider how to interact with locals. Some say it’s safe, while others tend to disagree. What are some tips for a safe and successful journey? My journey’s success is reliant on those kind-hearted souls that I’ll hopefully meet along the way.

I have to wonder if this isn’t also the inner monologue of these children. We’ll never know because there are so many of them, because we don’t know their names, their stories, their individual hopes and fears, and that if that given a chance they also might love to make us dessert and could even enjoy eating it with us.

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After reading of Hitchy’s anxiety and seeing his picture, I felt something I recognized as maternal affection. For a brief moment, I fantasized about tracking him down on the road, arranging to pick him up so I could make certain he was well cared for during his travels. He also sounded like a fun conversationalist. Yes, I got so caught up in his story that I am now one of the thousands of people following Hitchbot on Twitter, and I even felt compelled to tweet to him: “Be careful out there on the road and I hope to see you return safely to your family.” But to whom was I really writing?

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