Ruth S. Aylett is a British author, computer scientist, professor, poet, and political activist. She is a professor of computer science at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, where she specialises in affective computing, social computing, software agents, and human–robot interaction.
Every so often, we experience a technology hype in which mass media become fascinated with a specific technology and report exaggerated wishes and predictions about its capabilities as facts. We are currently experiencing such a hype about AI in general and robots in particular. Robot hype taps into strongly-rooted cultural anxieties in western societies about the role of technology and human abilities to control it and to the social experience of automation. It relates strongly to fictional accounts of robots, especially in film and rides on the sales impact of sensationalised ‘bad news’ along with popular fondness for horror stories and zombies. It also draws on the tropes of social Darwinism about ‘survival of the fittest’ as well as the history of human enslavement and ‘othering’. What stance should roboticists take towards this hype? We can contribute to it, a temptation when trying to popularise research. Arguably the whole field of social robotics does so inadvertently. We can try to take advantage of it, as in gaining better access to research funding. We can ignore it and just carry on. Or we can try to combat it. The book ‘Living with robots – what every anxious human needs to know’ is an attempt at the latter in the form of a popular science book. Its mission is to contribute a realistic assessment of robot capabilities and roles, to communicate robotic research outcomes to the public and to redirect public anxiety to more pressing robot issues such as autonomous weapons. It’s not clear this will succeed – no media outlet ever lost money by claiming robots will take over the world. However I argue that as scientists we have an ethical duty to combat hype, which is damaging to our whole field.
Papers covered during the talk
- Aylett, R and Vargas, P. (2021) Living with robots – what every anxious human needs to know. link
- Bartneck, C. (2013). Robots In The Theatre And The Media. Proceedings of the Design & Semantics of Form & Movement (DeSForM2013), Wuxi pp. 64-70.
- Brooks, R. (2017). The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions. Mistaken extrapolations, limited imagination, and other common mistakes that distract us from thinking more productively about the future. MIT Technology Reviews). link, accessed Oct 25 2021
- Horstmann, A. C., & Krämer, N. C. (2019). Great expectations? Relation of previous experiences with social robots in real life or in the media and expectancies based on qualitative and quantitative assessment. link, Frontiers in psychology, 10, 939.