Falling in love with robots

Last week I went to the Media Lab’s h2.0 conference at MIT. “h2.0” stands for human 2.0; the conference centered on the surprisingly close relationship between using technology to cope with human disabilities and using technology to augment human capabilities. That is to say, people with disabilities are leading the way on human augmentation of any kind. The bionic man is already here, and he asks that you not pity him. He finds it tiresome, and it makes you look naive. This makes plenty of sense, but still it catches you by surprise to hear a double amputee say “Why would I want my old human knees back? I get to keep upgrading mine for the rest of my life.” As Aimee Mullins, a double-amputee sprinter, said during her talk “If I want to run fast, I don’t want prosthetic legs modeled after a human. I want legs like a cheetah.”

Anyway, one of the things that came up during the talks was the investment that the Media Lab is making in robots. This by itself is not surprising, but the next part is: The Media Lab is investing in robots for the purpose of connecting emotionally with humans. I met a guy who is making robotic diet coaches. The main purpose of the robot is to stare at you soulfully, blink blink, and ask that you truthfully relate your daily eating habits. And apparently this works. People trust robots and respond to robots much much more than they would to a screen-bound animation. These robots don’t need fancy arms and legs, because once you fall in love with them, you will do the legwork for them.

I was particularly reminded of all this when I came across Clive Thompson’s recent link to an article in the Washington Post: Bots on The Ground is about the growing emotional bond between soldiers and the machines that serve them. It’s a great article.