Dehumanizing Humans by Humanizing Robots

In last month’s IEEE Spectrum, Charles Choi wrote an article, Brain Scans Show Humans Feel for Robots.  Choi describes the research of a University of Duisburg-Essen group who does functional brain imaging on human subjects while showing them videos of humans abusing Pleo, a retail toy dinosaur-bot.  In Robot Futures’ chapter 3, Dehumanizing Robots, I argue that as robots become more full-fledged social entities in our environs and we interact with them, there will be a prevalence toward treating them as clearly inferior to us humans- as they rightly are. But that treatment in turn may bleed into the way we treat other humans around us, particularly as the transition from human-robot interaction to human-human interaction becomes ever more difficult to notice thanks to telepresence and adjustable robot autonomy.  The FMRI results in Choi’s article demonstrate that, indeed, our social interaction with robots will affect our brains along lines of emotional/limbic response that will not be all that different from human-human interaction. Anyone with pets at home could have guessed about this result; but with robots we face the odd prospect of ever more complete social interaction with a new, completely alien species. And what’s worse, each member of that robo-species may be quite different one from the other- it’s not even a coherent, consistent set of sub-species. So will we abuse robots in novel ways? I think we will. Will that change our brain in the very same parts that control and modulate how we interact with humans? I’m afraid so.

 

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