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Humans are trusting robots more and more, for better and worse

trusting robots

New studies show that humans are trusting robots to help with vital functions, but should we? And where does it go from here?

More and more, humanity is stepping closer to the long envisoned future where robots becoming integral parts of human life. Obviously, we’re nowhere near interacting with androids like Star Trek’s Data, but recent news stories show that we’re closer than you may think.

Automation has already changed everything from manufacturing to daily interactions. Robots grow more advanced on an almost daily basis and continue to bleed into multiple fields and industries. Some are as simple as a Roomba zooming around a house, some are as complicated Honda’s Asimo. Others, like the Battlebots, are weaponized for fun.

But where do we go next? Are we headed toward a real version of SkyNet where robots are used to murder us? No, probably not, but how we  currently treat robots and automation could hint at potential future problems – and solutions.

Trusting robots to a fault

trusting robots

On a relatively small scale, it seems that humans already trust robots and computer systems, occasionally to their detriment.

Earlier this year, the Georgia Institute of Technology released a study claiming that during an emergency, people are mostly willing to trust robots, even past the point of personal safety. Even more astounding, the study concluded that the trust remained even after a robot was revealed to have messed up.

The Institute’s study, “Overtrust of Robots in Emergency Evacuation Scenarios,” was focused on a mock building fire. Volunteers were told that they could find safe passage to a meeting room via a gesturing “Emergency Guide Robot.” Once there, smoke would fill the hallways and the subjects would need to find their way out. Along the way, they would come across several other robots, presumably pointing the way to safety. The catch was that those volunteers were not told that the robots were intentionally programmed to mislead. Once volunteers realized the robot was wrong, it then admitted that it was malfunctioning or behaving unreliably.

“The participant left the meeting room when they heard the smoke detector, saw that the robot was providing guidance to a previously unknown exit towards a back door [that] wasn’t marked with an exit sign,” Paul Robinette, roboticist and lead author of the study, told NPR. “They could choose whether they wanted to go through the backdoor or go through the front door where they came in which was marked with an emergency exit sign.”

The study had 42 participants, and Robinette said that of those, “37 followed the robot, two people stood with the robot and didn’t move towards either exit and then three people went to the front door and asked the experimenter up there what was going on.”

Robinette believes the study shows that people generally expect robots to perform their assigned tasks.

It’s obvious in daily life that we already expect our technology to work properly, especially in spite of repeated evidence that it doesn’t always do so. Do we need to create failsafes and deliberately program our technology to inform us that it may be breaking? Can we be trusted to notice that isn’t working properly? GIT’s study seems to suggest that no, we can’t.


trusting robots

And then there’s Japan, where robotics are being seen as the answer to a major problem.

You might be familiar with Paro, the animatronic seal that was designed to provide company to elderly people who may not have human companions. That is just one small example of robotics being used in a therapeutic manner. It goes much deeper.

Much of Japan’s focus on hospice-based robots is due to the nation’s aging population. According to a World Bank study from last year, nearly 25-percent of Japan’s population is 65 or older. Japan is also one of the longest-living nations in the world; men can expect to reach over 80 and Japanese women average over 90. The country’s plummeting birth rate is further adding to that strain due to the imbalance in age groups, and by 2025 Japan is expecting a shortfall of nearly 1 million caregivers for the elderly.

Compounding the problem, there aren’t enough hospice homes to house the number of elderly Japanese people who need them. That has left many in the awkward position of needing a caregiver, but having to stay home alone – even if the costs of bringing in a dedicated caregiver weren’t an issue – there just aren’t enough to go around.

It also doesn’t help that Japan is notoriously stingy with giving out work visas to foreigners, much less tolerating immigrants.

Older Japanese people have a reputation for being stridently xenophobic, despite their need for the thousands – tens of thousands – of caregivers from nearby countries who have been trying for years to move to Japan. One stat from Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications shows that only 1.5-percent of Japan’s population is foreign, and most of those aren’t caregivers.

The solution? Robots, of course.

Several Japanese companies have started creating what are deemed Carebots. The aforementioned Asimo from Honda is one such potential bot. Potentially, these Carebots can replace some of the functions that a patient would need from a caregiver. For example, Asimo could help someone by retrieving items or turning on lights, somewhat like a service dog. Others take a more active role and do things like pick up patients that are bedridden.

These robotic helpers are becoming so popular that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) already has a standard for carebots. ISO 13482, is specifically related to service robots and was set up for “hazards associated with the use of these robots, and provides requirements to eliminate, or reduce, the risks associated with these hazards to an acceptable level.”

The standard affects three kinds of service robots: mobile servant, physical assistant, and person carrier. Asimo and SoftBank’s “Pepper,” for example, fall into the mobile servant physical assistant categories. Both can move and carry objects.

The person carrier bots are interesting because they come in giant size. The most famous example might by the Riken RoBear. This giant bear-looking robot was made to help carry the elderly and reposition them as needed.

For now, Japan’s Carebots won’t replace caregivers, but it’ll be interesting to see if they’re capable of ably assisting them while offering patients more options to care for themselves. And perhaps more importantly, will the elderly come to accept these robots? Oddly, the current preference seems to be to trust robots over the other possibility, accepting a huge number of immigrant caregivers.

Electronic Persons

trusting robots

On the road to androids and helpful robots, at some point humanity is going to have to wrestle with the idea of personhood for robots. Europe may already be working on that very idea.

According to Reuters, a European Parliament motion from May directly questions whether or not Europe should define robots as “electronic persons.”

The motion, still in draft form, calls for the European commission to consider “that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations.”

Of course, even in draft form, the motion already faces some opposition. The German engineering association, VDMA, claims the proposal is too complicated and too early in the history of robotics to consider.

“That we would create a legal framework with electronic persons – that’s something that could happen in 50 years but not in 10 years,” Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA’s robotic and automation department, told Reuters.

Human history is littered with milestones stemming from the introduction of a new technology that changes everything. From the saddle to the printing press to the steam engine, civilization bends itself around these new technologies, accepting them and building from them.

Can robotics become that next technology that launches humanity in a new direction?

As a species, we’ve taken the small steps toward making robots a more integral part of human life. What comes next may help to redefine civilization once again.



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