Roboethics – dealing with the ‘cheat’ robot

In a recent article in the Japan Times, Rob Gilhooly described a visit he had made to the University of Tokyo’s Ishikawa Oku Laboratory in Japan. There, Gilhooly was introduced to a new sort of robot. Not a robot like Honda’s Asimo (アシモ), a humanoid creation serving drinks. This was a robot with a very different (though equally disconcerting) skill, that is, its 100% success rate at the game of Janken(じゃんけん), or, as Westerners call it, rock-paper-scissors.

The robot, which, unlike Asimo operates without a head, torso or limbs, is, quite simply, pure mechanical hand. It owes its children’s game success to its super high-speed reactions. Technology known as ‘High Speed Vision’ in the industry allows the robot to enjoy reaction times 70 times faster than those of humans. Such technology has also been used in the development of a 3-D scanner able to process a 300-page book in one minute and a microscope that can track fast-moving organisms. When Gilhooly meets the head of the team in charge of developing the robotic hand at the university, Masatoshi Ishikawa, Ishikawa also reveals that they are trying to find something fast enough to actually challenge their invention. They’re thinking about presenting the robot with bullets. Gilhooly is amazed.

So far, so impressive. But what can creations such as the robotic hand, and our attitudes towards them, tell us about our own human nature? Do we feel, like Gilhooly in his frustration at his repeated losses against the robot, that it is cheating? And do we feel differently towards humanoid robots (who look and act like us but cannot achieve non-human feats) and robots who are mechanical in appearance but perform super-human actions, beating us at our own games?

Such questions have been taken up in the study of roboethics, a relatively new field of interest in science, psychology and philosophy. The subject considers the behaviour of humans in their design, construction, use and treatment of robot, and brings up complex questions relating to topics such as consciousness, freedom and emotion. In 2004, the International Robot Fair in Fukuoka, Japan, published a World Robot Declaration, outlining the contributions robots will make to humankind. That same year saw the First International Symposium on Roboethics take place in Sanremo, Italy.

As robots become increasingly complicated and able, the study of roboethics can only become more important. While talented scientists devote themselves to developing robots, we should also be considering how robots develop us, as human beings, and what we can learn from them about ourselves. Lesson 1: we might not be as good at Janken as we think…

Sources include: The Japan Times

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