The rise of technology that we have witnessed over the last few years has brought along a series of questions left to be answered either by ingenious designs or the voice (and artificial intelligence) of a smart speaker. How will the versatility of AI change the human interactions and what implications does that have in the context of emotional wellbeing? In fact, digital wellness is a topic of increasing interest among people, as they are searching for new metrics to slow down and start living in a more considerate way.
In January 2018, Britain’s Government launched the first loneliness strategy, after recognizing it as ‘one of the greatest public health challenges of our time’, as well as its billion-pound toll on the UK’s economy. Because loneliness is closely related to depression, heart disease and, implicitly, productivity loss, dozens of start-ups are promoting robots as home companions. In other countries, such as Japan, social robots are increasingly popular, blurring the line between ‘tools and pals’.
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However, unlike the cinematic representations of AI robots as cold, imposing and conscious, they cannot feel, whereas the entire array of human interactions is fully dependable on emotions. As Astrid Weiss, a human-robot interaction researcher noted, ‘we tend to treat media technology like we treat other humans’, highlighting that ‘social interaction is a deeply-rooted human trait’. This is where what we need out of technology and what defines us as humans comes into question.
In a time where digital interaction makes us feel more disconnected than ever, a growing number of AI functions and gadgets are programmed to meet human’s fundamental need to interact with others. The question left to be answered is whether the sociability of a robot lies in its human-like appearance or the ability of machine learning and AI to ‘fake it till they make it’. Bearing in mind that people cannot help but attach human features to non-human objects; it might be a bit of both.
During her TEDxTUWien talk, Astrid Weiss made a reference to the movie ‘Robot and Frank’, where the protagonists (an elderly man suffering from severe dementia and a robot butler) bond over their own imperfections. Hence, Frank does not see the robot merely as a servant, but as his friend and refuses to accept any form of abusive behaviour coming from other members of his family. Taking this a step further, and perhaps cliché by now, in the movie Bicentennial Man, Robin Williams, as Andrew the robot, pleads for human rights, which were granted only once he made himself mortal.
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“Decades of robotics research and product development show a clear distinction between predictable machines, like robot vacuum cleaners and smart interactive devices that can’t quite be understood, yet appear to understand a bit of us. The former is quickly seen as dull and lifeless, while with the latter we feel a sense of connection. In fact, as soon as a life-like robot is understood it becomes lifeless and deception of faked understanding’ mentioned Stefan Taal, Principal – Engineering at PDD.
Imagine having access to the software ‘rulebook’ of Frank’s robot or of Andrew the human, we would quickly lose any sense of bonding. With increasing awareness of technology, people can spot the rulebook easier than ever. Following the recent spur of startups developing robotic friends, many of these start-ups have now disappeared, having come up short in both the friend aspect as well as the ‘useful helper’ aspect. In some occasions, social robots are readily accepted, such as with toddlers, autistic children, and dementia patients. We, ‘normal grownups’ can see the make-believe set up by the robot, but when will we be (or have we already been) tricked?
Will we let ourselves be surprised by our own emotions each time a new smart device gradually enters our life, or can we anticipate the unknown and create successful products that are both useful while also considered a trusted companion? We might as well see it as a technological paradox, as what brings us closer to the future is not the constant appraisal of strengths and advancements, but the recognition of weaknesses. Perhaps the key is to bond with machines over their imperfections as they help us overcome ours. Either way, it’s fair to say that now more than ever, we need a human-centred approach; one where we admit we know very little, dive deep, and (as we say) ‘create, test, repeat, succeed’.