Monday, January 27, 2014

Do People Even Like Robots?

It's nice to be able to invite a guest to your wedding and know that he or she isn't going to make a terrible speech or throw up on the wedding cake. On the other hand, it's also nice to be able to invite a guest to your wedding and know that he or she isn't going to make the other guests feel awkward and uncomfortable, merely by showing up. 

This is the dilemma posed by robot wedding guests, and I learned about this thanks to the recent article in the "Vows" section of the New York Times. Ideally, the robots act as telepresence proxies for guests who can't attend, but still want to be a part of the festivities (although at least one enterprising couple had a robot officiate the ceremony). Of course, the downside is that people still aren't that comfortable interacting with robots, so once the novelty wears off they are largely ignored. 

As men pulled their dates to the dance floor in Australia, Mr. O’Neill watched from Canada sitting at his computer dressed in a suit with a beer in hand, and was able to see what was happening only right in front of the seat where his brothers had propped up the robot.
“I was unconsciously turning my head to talk to people and realizing I’m in a cold, dark basement and it’s 1 in the morning,” he said.

This reminded me of the first episode of season 5 of The Good Wife. I think the callous behavior that the LG employees show toward "Monica" (a co-worker who interfaces with the firm via telepresence robot) emphasizes both the way that certain technologies destabilize social norms and disrupt communication (even--or perhaps especially--if that technology is supposed to enhance communication) and the generally toxic environment at LG.

Compare these examples, in which the human-robot interactions never become truly functional or integrated, with "Robot & Frank," in which the robot and protagonist forge a bond that is as emotionally complex as the one that Frank has with his children. It may be that "The Good Wife" is simply a more accurate reflection of how people feel about robots right now, and "Robot & Frank" is speculative fiction about a near-future in which robots are a little more responsive, a little more common.

More interesting still is that the telepresence robot in "The Good Wife" and some of the examples in the NYT article strongly resemble the descriptions of the wheeled tripodal servants that Haphaestus forged to serve the gods on Mt. Olympus. Indeed, perhaps our longstanding association between "robots" and "servants/slaves" is what makes us react to robotic avatars with discomfort, since they violate that association.