You probably think that owning a robot is the coolest thing in the world – and it is – but as humans we bring our own set of concerns to an already complicated mix of business and emotion. While the dream of robots whirring around our feet taking on the most menial of tasks sounds appealing at first, there are many human concerns that reveal themselves at the reality of robot ownership.
Such is the case with a concept as mind blowing as robot ownership when considered seriously. It can produce great mental fatigue attempting to understand all of the ramifications of the integration of a technology such as an autonomous security bot or an autonomous agricultural robot. It is important to recognize that these uncertainties are normal and tend to flow in a particularly predictable manner of three distinct stages.
Stage 1 – Reluctance
The first stage is reluctance. “I don’t need that, never have, never will.” That’s fine, but your competitors are not thinking about what they have or have not needed, they are thinking about how their bottom line looks at the end of the year.
Much of the reluctance of adopting autonomous robotic systems is based on simple, and logical, human emotion. As we begin analyzing the possibility of using autonomous systems in our operations we naturally begin to think of the laundry list of potential complications that also come along with the idea of an autonomous system.
Perhaps the most common fear is that robots will take jobs away from human workers. However, it has been found that robots tend to be placed into industries and jobs that humans will not do or take due to low pay, uninspiring work, or hazardous conditions.
In the AMC show Humans, a character is replaced in his home by an autonomous humanoid robot due to the fact that it gives his wife the attention that he was not willing to give to her himself. He then falls in love with another woman who, ironically, turns out to be a humanoid robot very similar to the robot he lost his wife to. Though this is all in fantasy it brings human emotions to the forefront of the Human vs. Robot fear. This reveals a basic human fear of being replaced and if robots can do everything better than we can then is there any place left for us?
Stage 2 – Acceptance
At some point one simply cannot ignore the efficiencies of robots in the areas of manufacturing and repetitive tasks.
In food processing there is no human contamination of product due to communicable diseases provided by human workers. Repetitive processing tasks can be completed perfectly every time. Robots even help humans learn how to make robotic systems more effective. Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have developed an algorithm that makes the use of robotic arms in manufacturing up to 40% more energy efficient by ramping the rate of execution up and down at various points. The list of robotic advantages goes on and on.
One area of reluctant acceptance is in the agricultural industry. Ag has been called the heart of our country and up until the industrial revolution was the largest employer worldwide. Recent developments in autonomous machinery have seen robots that can plow a field without any human intervention at all. Though farming is a very old profession it is at the forefront of autonomous technology and while the larger manufacturers are slow to accept it there are many smaller manufacturers that are producing, and running, autonomous machines on farms all over the world.
For early adopters, this acceptance can mean dramatic efficiencies in their processes or production, though acceptance will only come for some when they believe that they are either forced to adopt the new technology or close up shop.
Stage 3 – Anthropomorphism
Anthropomorphism is psychologically giving human traits to non-human objects. Disney is the master of anthropomorphism. Ask any three-year-old and they will tell you that rabbits, birds and even trees are thinking deep thoughts at this very moment and would tell you everything they knew if you just knew how to ask them the right way. This anthropomorphism is now making its way to robots.
It is natural for us to become attached to anything that has meaning. We fall in love with our cars, golf clubs and machines because they mean something to us. But we have to remember that we give them that meaning, they do not come with it attached to them upon creation. Therefore, autonomous robots, robots that take our commands and act on them independently, have a higher incidence of being anthropomorphized than other systems.
A few years ago, Julie carpenter, a University of Washington researcher, completed a study on the anthropomorphism of robots in the field of battle. She interviewed soldiers operating bomb bots and found their relationship to be quite complex. And while the humans would never sacrifice another human for their robotic counterparts they did exhibit emotions such as anger and sadness if their robot was destroyed. What if these robots were more humanoid in their appearance, what if they acted more ‘human’ in their interaction, would that only strengthen the connection?
Savioke is an amazing autonomous robotic system. It is a delivery bot that completes the very basic task of taking something from one place to another, but you might think from the response it receives that it drops gold coins behind it as it travels. I recently watched a Savioka bot deliver a set of towels to a hotel room outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. When the room occupant opened their door they were welcomed by not only their delivery bot but also by 14 excited children surrounding the bot yelling, “He brought your things to you!” Not IT, but HE.
In the end…
We attach our heart to things that bring us meaning. Whether that meaning is based on success, esteem, or the fulfillment of a basic need, it pulls on our heart strings and creates in us a desire to attach ourselves to something great.
Once we can move beyond the idea that robots will “take all of the jobs” or that “robots will take over the earth” we can see them objectively for what they are: wonderful and marvelous machines that should be praised for their marvelous execution of task.
We will continue to improve them, we will continue to adopt them and we will continue to deride them at will. Like it or not, the robots are coming.
 Carpenter, J. (2016). Culture and Human-Robot Interaction in militarized spaces: A war story. UK: Ashgate.