Artificial Intelligence is viewed as this encroaching force, one that will wrest control from us. However, the things I learned during my encounter makes me believe that we should not fear it.
Her blue mascara-lashed eyes moved from side to side, her head tilted in the direction of voices, her brow and chin raised in concentrated listening; she blinked and nodded in agreement and sometimes she paused, uncertain that she had quite understood the commands being barked by the group of three men standing around her.
One of them, in his mid forties with greying hair and dressed in an expensive suit, reached up to her face and began to feel her cheeks, prodding and squeezing, waiting for a reaction. None came so he persisted as if this would elicit one, but instead she remained impassive.
Inside the hub dedicated to the latest advances in Artificial Intelligence of an international conference, I had not expected to find the actions of another attendee disquieting, nor hear myself telling him so.
All three men turned to look at me. Stepping outside their primal reverie, the man doing the prodding asked me aggressively: “Why? It’s a robot!”, though he remained unsettled by the mind-bend that, out of the minority of two “women” in the room, I was defending the non-human.
But the robot “behaved”; she reacted and seemingly tried to interpret the sounds of words that she had been programmed to recognise, like the family dog that wants at all costs to please, to understand the instructions of a voice that it has no option but to trust.
It takes very little for a human to recognise a face. A line to define a mouth and a couple of marks to signify the eyes will generate empathy even for an inanimate object. A face generates kinship that instantly revives one’s own experience of pain or happiness; it communicates sentiment, whether it’s an animated Disney candlestick, the contemplative stare of a blue whale or the cries and laughter of a baby.
It is easy to contemplate AI as the encroaching, even ominous, force that will undermine life as we know it. Yet global interconnectivity makes it difficult to ignore the fact that the planet is increasingly threatened by our overbearing human imprint.
If this robot looked like a woman, she deserved to be treated like one.
The men moved away, shaking their heads, perhaps at the vision of things to come, including no doubt, my female over-sensitivity.
”Would you like to touch her?”, the robot’s designer asked me quietly. “Not without asking her”, I replied automatically.
Her “skin” was soft and warm. And I stroked her tentatively. Would she be able to distinguish between picking up a glass without crushing it and holding the weight of a book? Would she process my gentle hand on her in the same way as the objectifying pokes of the men before me? Would she know the difference between humiliation and affection?
I had watched the men laugh with derision when she answered one of their questions incorrectly; I was even surprised at my own irritation when she spouted another nonsensical answer. As a woman, I had wanted her to show them up; I also felt the tinge of parental regret when one’s child can’t be bothered to rise to a simple challenge. But none of us had spoken into the microphone that enabled her to differentiate between irrelevant background sounds and those specifically tailored to her. It was our fault, but she was already paying the price.
Later, I sat at a table and had my portrait drawn by three separate robots. This time they bore no resemblance to a human face. Instead, small individual black cameras attached to long wooden poles recorded my features from various angles and transmitted them to separate contraptions on the desktop, each of which held a black pen that drew the observations directly on to paper.
Their machine heads whirred with concentration and I quickly established a rapport with them. Their different personalities and methodology made me laugh. The calm and systematic camera head that looked up at me, like a master before a canvas, lingering deliberately, and lowering its gaze slowly towards the paper. While its agitated companion, frustrated by its failure to capture its subject, glanced up and down repeatedly until, eventually, like an impatient child abandoning any attempt at accuracy, scribbled its own version. And the third robot did not seem able to get a grip on the task at hand at all. It made barely any marks on the paper and dithered forlornly, until its human inventor provided a new piece of paper, as if to say, “It’s ok, have another go.”
I was flattered by their intense focus on me. They struck me as male, perhaps in their obvious efforts to succeed, and they corralled me inside their space in a manner that was less intrusive than if they had been three men. Theirs was a filial protectiveness, like a son towards his mother, and I willingly put my confidence in them.
I bonded over their artistry, which varied from the complex modern to simplistic but haunting outlines. My image emerged from a void; the blackened marks of unselfconscious and hungry exploration were surprisingly soulful, even managing to reflect my inner bemusement at their efforts.
It is easy to contemplate AI as the encroaching, even ominous, force that will undermine life as we know it. Yet global interconnectivity makes it difficult to ignore the fact that the planet is increasingly threatened by our overbearing human imprint: thoughtless industrialisation, climate change, war and persistent poverty mean that we now stand at a crossroads, trying to re-define ourselves as guardians, not ravagers, of our planet.
Moreover, mature economies can’t address the everyday needs of their populations; overworked staff in overcrowded, underfunded facilities cannot keep up with the needs of the old, the ill and the dying.
Divorce and death also continue to distress, confuse and overwhelm, long after partners and friends have moved on. Nine million people in Britain describe themselves as lonely all or most of the time, and this undermines their health, which can lead to the early onset of dementia and depression. And depression itself is a long-term illness, with social stigma, that most doctors lack the resources and time to treat.
The idea of robots as carers and custodians of our own humanity is not so far-fetched, at a time when our intentions to reach ever-greater fairness in society exceeds our capacities to achieve it. Today, for example, robots can measure the blood flow of “locked-in” stroke victims and are able to communicate with them, providing comfort, stimulus and paths to improvement that no loved one, patiently sitting at the bedside, can equal.
It is often our imperfections that trigger our ability to empathise. Perhaps we need technology as a means to act more humanely, and allow millions to lead a more human life.
It is often our imperfections that trigger our ability to empathise. To see our struggles reflected in those of others can make them more bearable; a sick child often ends up a more caring adult. Robots will not eradicate imperfection, and human behaviour will still mystify many algorithms, but the social programmes and expenditures of today’s governments fall grievously short of the complex needs of their populations. Perhaps we need technology as a means to act more humanely, and allow millions to lead a more human life.
Will automation and AI displace and do away with jobs? Yes. Could robots contribute to gender bias depending on their design? Certainly. The temptation to strike, not stroke, the face of a female robot could set back the concerted ongoing efforts across the world to promote gender equality.
But young women entering the world of technology and engineering can help overcome gender prejudice and income disparity. From the vantage point of America’s highest-paid female chief executive in 2014, Martine Rothblatt, who was born male, “The girl who can dominate a field of robots is a woman who can dominate a field of men.”
Because equally concerning to future employment opportunities is the pressure of ageing parents and ailing relatives, which often falls on female shoulders. Pre-programmed robots could address the lack of care for the sick and for an ageing population, as well as re-placing genderless but dangerous, subsistent and mindless labour with professional occupations of more consequence.
Robots might even help re-calibrate the dial on our moral compass that struggles with finding sustainable solutions to changing demographics and dwindling resources. Our growing fears of how AI will change us ignore the fact that it could be for the better.