The new breed: What our history with animals reveals about our future with machines

Society has to accept robots and artificial intelligence as valued partners; just as humans have accepted animals into their world for millenia.

Scared of a robot? Pour a bucket of water over it. Most will not hurt you then. Robot football team? Would still get beaten by your kids under 8s. There's a lot robots can't do.

But then, there is a lot they can. Dull repetitive tasks, maybe in dirty and dangerous places, are a speciality. They can be consistently precise where humans cannot be. They can process reams of data swiftly and accurately.

Many thousands of years ago, man domesticated animals. These animals were specialised in their employment. Oxen pulled carts, cats controlled rodents, dogs retrieved game on the hunt, pigeons delivered messages. The animals did not replace or displace humans. They performed functions humans cannot or were less suited to do so.

Our human empathy for each other spilled over first to animals, now to robots.
Kate Darling, Research Specialist, MIT Media Lab

It is an interesting context in which to think about robots. Just as animals were employed to do what humans could not – or not as well – so we use robots today. They augment and complement the role of humans in society, just as when we domesticated livestock.

Humans needed a process to bring other species into our society. We anthropomorphised them. We attributed human traits to them. Some became social companions, part of households and families. Just as animals moved into households hundreds of years ago, so robots are today. Our human empathy for each other spilled over first to animals, now to robots.

This anthropomorphism is visible in our relations with robots. The video of a human kicking a dog robot was reported to animal cruelty charities. Marines gave obsolete or damaged bomb clearance robots a funeral. Customers name their floor-sweeping droids and insist on their original being repaired rather than replaced. A form of bonding is taking place.

What would be the point of creating artificial intelligence to replicate human intelligence?
Kate Darling, Research Specialist, MIT Media Lab

This bonding is taken to extreme and purposeful lengths. A baby seal robot is used to sooth and provide company to geriatrics in Japan. Children's toys use robotics to construct pet-like creations. In one experiment, groups of adults refused to destroy a dinosaur toy, such was the level of attachment they had developed with an object only animate with the switch turned on.

Artificial intelligence is not human intelligence. As brilliant as a computer can play chess – where the boundaries and rules are set – they are unconvincing at conversation, which is fluid, dynamic and contextual.

What, indeed, would be the point of creating artificial intelligence that was seeking to replicate human intelligence? AI should be able to do what we cannot, just as dogs can flush rabbits out of tunnels. Robots are never the agent; they are not taking over anything. Humans remain the agents. We shape the future. Robots are tools, increasingly capable tools.

Once animals augmented society without replacing humans; now robots are doing the same. Facilitated by our own innate tendency to anthropomorphise, we can think of robots as a new breed. We should welcome our robot partners.

Summary based on Swiss Re Institute event: Algorithms for hope.

Algorithms for hope

Case studies with a positive global impact as we move from human to augmented intelligence. Swiss Re Institute in partnership with Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute and IBM Research.

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