The NYT Magazine cover story this week is about sociable robots, like Kismet, the fellow below. Author Robin Marantz Henig seems impressed by the performances of a number of robots, until she learns that what looks like a robot developing "theory of mind" or self-awareness actually falls rather short. However, while we can get a particular robot to perform a particular often unimpressive task, if we could get a single robot to do all of those tasks, we'd all likely be quite a bit more impressed. Interestingly, some of the article's more impressive observations concern what we have learned about humans based on our interactions with robots rather than the other way around.
Here's one somewhat depressing vignette from the article:
Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T., worries that sociable robots might be easier to deal with than people are and that one day we might actually prefer our relationships with our machines. A female graduate student once approached her after a lecture, Turkle said, and announced that she would gladly trade in her boyfriend for a sophisticated humanoid robot as long as the robot could produce what the student called “caring behavior.” “I need the feeling of civility in the house,” she told Turkle. “If the robot could provide a civil environment, I would be happy to help produce the illusion that there is somebody really with me.” What she was looking for, the student said, was a “no-risk relationship” that would stave off loneliness; a responsive robot, even if it was just exhibiting scripted behavior, seemed better to her than an unresponsive boyfriend.
The encounter horrified Turkle, who thought it revealed how dangerous, and how seductive, sociable robots could be. “They push our Darwinian buttons,” she told me. Sociable robots are programmed to exhibit the kind of behavior we have come to associate with sentience and empathy, she said, which leads us to think of them as creatures with intentions, emotions and autonomy: “You see a robot like that as a creature; you feel a desire to nurture it. And with this desire comes the fantasy of reciprocation. You begin to care for these creatures and to want the creatures to care about you.”