|Robot and Frank, 2012|
"When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” – Dale Carnegie
The most emotional moments of our lives are the most memorable. Our best friends help us lead lives that are happy and bright, and are endearingly empathetic when we’re down. Emotions colour our world, our interactions, our words, from humming in the morning over breakfast, to smiles before sleeping at night. Positive emotions help us to be more creative, be more optimistic, and even work harder. Negative emotions help us focus, narrow our field of view to attack a problem, or change course when one direction isn’t working out.Robots show promise in helping us in these emotion-governed lives. Just as the Internet and mobile technology has made us more connected, new robotic technologies are opening a door towards supporting an aging society. In Japan, almost 25% of the population is over 65 years old, and they seek a life of retirement with independence in the community, physical activities, and an active social life.
To meet the rising demand for healthcare workers and more, the Japanese government has estimated that the service robot market will reach over 4900 billion yen by 2035, exceeding the demand for robot manufacturing by almost twofold. It is hoped, for example, that robots can help the bedridden become mobile, and the dependent become independent.
Yet robots have to overcome the challenge of navigating our world, because it is not always black and white.
Imagine a healthcare robot overseeing an elderly patient named Linda at the hospital – the robot is set to close the room by 9pm. Soaked by the rain, the patient’s daughter, Mary, knocks on the hospital room door. She has driven 50 kilometers from the airport, but a thunderstorm has delayed her arrival. Mary yearns to hold her mother’s hand – it has been 3 years since their last meeting. Linda is delighted to see her daughter through the hospital room window, but it is now 9:01pm. Crestfallen, the mom and daughter eyes meet, as the healthcare robot locks the door with a loud thud.
The rules are rules.
"The heart is a strange beast and not ruled by logic.” – Maria V. Snyder
Nurse Noakes (Cloud Atlas, 2012) runs the nursing home with an iron fist.
It is easy to see why, in a 2012 survey, 60% of EU citizens stated that robots should be banned in the care of children, the elderly, or the disabled. Large majorities would also agree to ban robots from ‘human’ areas such as education (34%), healthcare (27%) and leisure (20%) [their quotes]. Of course, in certain environments like factories, bomb-detection or remote operating tables, the precision and predictability of robots is a necessity. Yet a new breed of “service robots” are advancing to our doorstep quickly, with the potential to change the lives of children and the elderly, able-bodied and disabled, students and more. For robots to be accepted in our daily lives as helpers, we must release robots from their pure, programmed logic and make them more emotional, more empathetic, to interact with humans on their own terms.
How do we start to build such a robot? One guiding principle could be to look to human development for inspiration. Just as each human has linguistic abilities (whether through voice or sign-language), each human is equipped with the capacities of emotion expression and understanding. And whether they were raised in Japan, the USA, China or France, each person is unique based on their upbringing and environment. They may express happiness loudly or quietly, they may fear snakes or love snakes. They may be more or less sympathetic. They may openly declare displeasure or only show it through one eyebrow. Their abilities may fall on a spectrum of what we consider underdeveloped emotional intelligence, or autism. Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all definition, and likewise, a robot’s emotions should be adaptive, too. Sometimes this zealous focus on pliable, human-like models may appear to be a detriment to the short-term accuracy of the systems we engineer. But with the goal of autonomous, ever-learning robots, our hope is that in the long-term, we will be building the foundation of a powerful artificial emotional intelligence.