When it comes to humanoid robotics, none have quite lived up to Sophia, Hanson Robotics’ most advanced—and iconic—invention. The female bot, equipped with a skin-like facade, makeup and even teeth, excels when it comes to expressing her business inclination with natural-born leadership skills. To date “She has met face-to-face with key decision makers in banking, insurance, auto manufacturing, property development, media, and entertainment”, as written in her description on the Hanson Robotics’ website. Her creepy mechanic soul, delayed facial expressions and her contrived sense of humour have been engineered to make Sophia a highly sought after employee as opposed to an empathic, human-like robot. In other words, she means business.
While Hanson Robotics is developing humanoids whose goal is to be more efficient in a competitive work environment, other labs are focusing on more empathic, albeit less hyperbolic bots than Sophia. The Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories for instance has been on a more poetic (or creepy, depending on the angle) mission to develop robots that could reproduce what Ishiguro calls the human presence, which is the subtle facial and body movements that make a human, human.
Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, roboticist and director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Osaka, Japan, is developing the tools to integrate robotic technologies with the human presence by making robots that could interact with humans without freaking us out (sorry Sophia, that is how you make us feel when you joke about conquering the world and destroying the human race). “We explore not just how people conversing with the robot are affected, but also how the robot’s operator is affected.” Writes Hiroshi Ishiguro. By developing “Geminoids” such as the newly launched Ibuki, an android built to resemble a 10-year-old child, alongside teleoperation systems, the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories is applying methods from engineering, cognitive science and neuroscience to investigate and hone in on the relationship between humans and robots on a social and emotional level. By creating a child android and imitating the malleability of a young mind and body, Ishiguro expects that a robot that can play, move and consequently share the human experience will—over time—become a conversational robot able to construct a deeper relationship with the human.
Robots developed at the Ishiguro Labs are built to ultimately live symbiotically with humans and that is why the focus of Ishiguro’s research is on body language. Arguably, Ishiguro’s investigation into robotics is more experimental and slow paced and its twist lies on the premise that Ishiguro builds robots in order to understand humans and not the other way around. “My research question is to know what is a human,” he once said in an interview with Spectrum, “I use very human-like robots as test beds for my hypotheses.” With his investigation and often speculative approach, Ishiguro’s aim is not to build robots that are better than Sophia, as his probe goes far beyond the production of androids whose sole raison d’etre is to increase human productivity. His dream is to replicate humans themselves, with all their perfect imperfections, and that includes much more than a fake smile and a couple of cringy jokes.
The scene is of a fighter plane, an army submarine or tank operating as usual. The only difference is that aboard them are no human beings at all. This image isn’t from a sci-fi movie or even a far away future, instead Autonomous Weapons Systems or Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) were the focal point of countless discussions at the UN last week when member countries met in Geneva at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).
The convention’s aim is to bring together all members of the United Nations in a constructive and hopefully productive agreement to ban the use of automated weapons controlled by AI on an international scale. Now the case to ban autonomous weapons of all shapes and functionalities was first brought to the CCW back in 2013, when a coalition of nine NGOs under the name of Campaign to Stop Killer Robots began raising this growing concern and campaigning for the absolute and immediate outlawing of such military developments.
In last week’s convention and five years after the relentless campaigning against these lethal and highly controversial weapons began, 121 countries have agreed “that new regulations are needed to ensure meaningful human control of all weapons systems” as reported by Forbes. However successful this development is—which it is—concrete steps towards an international agreement to halt any developments in this field are yet to take place.
The U.S., China, Russia, Israel and Australia have previously opposed the negotiation and blocked a 2019 mandate on the matter as they then argued that it was too early on in the development of this new weapon branch, while also claiming that there are military advantages to such innovation. However in last week’s convention, all countries except for Russia agreed to continue the deliberations on the future of autonomous weapons in next year’s convention—unfortunately, as the CCW is based on a consensual structure of all members, Russia’s opposition had the voting power to block negotiations advancing further.
What such an opposition has caused is a detrimental slowing down of negotiation processes, which are already at a snail pace compared to that of hi-tech state military development and simply allows more time in a lawless grey zone for these nations to keep on developing their technology.
In response to the countries in opposition to continuing negotiation around the banning of such weapons, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that “The impacts of new technologies on warfare are a direct threat to our common responsibility to guarantee peace and security. The weaponization of artificial intelligence is a growing concern.”
It is yet unclear where the coming years will lead us in the development of autonomous weapons. What is transparent however is that powerful nations are striving to lead the race, with Putin stating that “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world” already in 2017. All we can do is continue to campaign against this move while supporting the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and their cause to stop the development of automated military weapons.