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Sunday, January 29, 2017

What does “being a human” mean?

Several recent events triggered these thoughts. The first was Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot which I had always wanted to, but had not read all these years. Finally, I was able to read it slowly and really savor it. I was particularly intrigued by the “robopsychologist”, Dr.Susan Calvin.

Then the book with the title R U R by the Czech writer by Karel Capek. The word Robot was the creation of this author, at the suggestion of his brother, and the expanded title reads as Rossum’s Universal Robot. This was the first time the word robot appeared in print.

The next is an essay on robots in a recent issue of National Geographic.

Finally, an essay on What is Human by Peter H. Kahn, Jr., Hiroshi Ishiguro, Batya Friedman, and Takayuki Kanda. They should know. Each one of them is a leader and a pioneer in their fields. Their focus is on “humanoid” robots. They show how developing a robot with human-like qualities requires an understanding of what a human is. Their focus was limited however.

Kahn, Ishiguro and their colleagues were interested in learning how to measure their success in building human-like robots, from the psychological point of view. For their purpose, they suggested developing “psychological benchmarks” defined as: “categories of interaction that capture conceptually fundamental aspects of human life, specified abstractly enough so as to resist their identity as a mere psychological instrument (e.g., as in a measurement scale), but capable of being translated into testable empirical propositions.”

Their suggestions are intriguing even with this limited definition of the “complex” that is human. They identified 6 items. They are: autonomy, imitation, intrinsic moral value, moral accountability, privacy and reciprocity. For details of these concepts and why the authors chose them, I refer you to their article. (What is a Human? – Toward Psychological Benchmarks in the Field of Human-Robot Interaction. Peter H. Kahn, Jr., Hiroshi Ishiguro, Batya Friedman, and Takayuki Kanda. The 15th IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN06), Hatfield, UK, September 6-8, 2006) You can access this article through Google-Scholar.

What is intriguing, but not surprising is that all of these items except imitation impinge on moral and ethical characteristics. The way things are going, Isaac Asimov may be right. We may have robots with these characteristics in the future. Do we call them “human” or “humanoid”? 

Although we are the ones who taught them those values, the robots may be capable of making moral and ethical decisions more consistently, since they do not have to deal with emotions. That is my major point. If emotion is lacking, how can it be called “human”?

Since we are the ones who teach them “values”, how do we get ourselves out and judge the robots to be “objectively” correct?

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