True Love?!

Interview with robot ethicist Kate Darling.

Robots are her passion – Dr. Kate Darling, robot ethicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard in the United States, asks why we develop strong emotional bonds with lifelike machines.

The boundary between humans and machines continues to dissolve: We interact with digital assistants as a matter of course, and they know more about us than our human partners. They are intimately acquainted with our schedules and they know the color of our favorite pants and even our favorite dish at the restaurant we like to go to. The amount of trust we invest in our smart technology and robots is not always particularly rational or well-considered. Kate Darling is fascinated by this phenomenon. Darling, a lawyer and Doctor of Sciences, and self-titled ‘Mistress of Machines’, researches the impact of robotic technology on our society, and explores the legal, social and ethical ramifications of these dynamics. “The problem is not that the robots could turn against us,” says Kate Darling. “It’s far more important that we find out what happens to us when we interact with them.”

Conferring human traits on robots

Kate Darling has watched people give names to their vacuum cleaner robots and feel sorry for them when they get trapped behind furniture. In another experiment, test subjects refused to destroy little dinosaur robots with which they had previously interacted. One participant even removed the battery so that her dinosaur wouldn’t feel any pain. Although the rational mind knows that machines do not have feelings and can simply be switched off, many people sympathize with them and treat them as if they were alive. They feel an ethical imperative toward these programmed, seemingly autonomous objects. According to Darling, it doesn’t matter how intelligent a machine is or what it is capable of. Our empathy, and the behavior that results from those feelings, can be easily manipulated by technology and those who control that technology – whether their intentions are good or bad. However, even in the face of her justifiable skepticism, Darling advocates the use of anthropomorphic technology for emotional support and enrichment in our lives. Robots have already been shown to be successful in enhancing therapeutic treatment for autistic children and providing social support for senior citizens in care facilities. “Instead of rejecting them outright, we should design them to help us and be responsible about the way we interact with them,” says Kate Darling. As a lawyer, she is also in favor of laws that regulate the way we build and handle these robots. The goal is not to give rights to robots, says the expert in robot ethics. The point is to take a good long look at how effectively robots can learn, what their capabilities are, and what kinds of functions they carry out.

Picture credits: Flavia Schaub

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