Back in 1936, the English mathematician, Alan Turing, imagined a theoretical contraption capable of replicating thought processes. The ‘Turing machine’ proved that instances of intelligent cognition could be produced outside a human brain. Artificial intelligence was born and after the war, Turing went on to work on the first stored-program computer, at the University of Manchester. In 1950, in an article published in the philosophy journal Mind, he wrote: ‘I believe that at the end of the century, the use of words and general educated thinking will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.’
Turing was right and today no one would deny the ongoing impact and spread of artificial technology in every area of our life, be it at home or at work, but also in seemingly unstoppable developments in the fields of learning, health care, transportation or social exchanges and communication. The prospect of cohabitation along domestic robots and perhaps one day, androids, has profound ethical implications.
In their 2017 book, Living with Robots’, Paul Dumouchel and Luisa Damiano explore the possible dimensions of human-robot interactions. Both authors point out the delicate balance to be tolerated in the range of emotions implanted in future sociable robots after the pioneering work of Hiroshi Ishiguro’s on his ‘Geminoid’ project or the research carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on affective computing with ‘Kismet’. Yet, the feelings ascribed to such unfinished robots can, in no way, be mistaken for ‘conscious’ events, since their so-called ‘emotional’ behaviour remains entirely artificial and taking place within specific protocols, set up by their designers. Although the semi-humanoid home robot ‘Pepper’ is capable of interacting with humans, it does not not, for all its AI sophistication, acquire the status of full-fledged human being, unlike the human-looking robot ‘Sophia’ which, in 2017, was awarded an honorary citizenship by Saudi Arabia.
Will future ‘humans’ prefer the company of compliant ‘robot-pets’ instead of flesh and bone family members and friends? The ever growing popularity of simulation games only confirms a marked tendency for 21st century humanity to embrace a way of life more and more geared towards virtual reality and based on the latest developments in AI technology. One of the most advanced powerful companies in this field is Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company. In June 2018, the latter published a list of ethical objectives such as always protecting the welfare of its users and ‘preventing unfair biases’ through its AI discoveries. Time will tell …