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Alan Kohler: The creepy, terrifying and troubling robot press conference

The first thing that struck me about the recent robot press conference was that they were all female, with breasts, and their (mostly male) creators had clearly tried to make most of them look beautiful.

The press conference was a media stunt at the AI For Good Global Summit organised by a group of United Nations agencies and held in Geneva last week.

There were nine robots present with their creators. Apart from the sole male one (which is actually an avatar, not a robot) they were referred to as “she” and “her”, which is fair enough I guess. They had female names and faces, usually with a bit of makeup, long hair, noses through which no air passed, and they were dressed as women with, as I say, superfluous bumps on their chests.

What is it with male engineers creating sexy-looking female robots? The only (real) woman on stage, Nadia Thalmann, an AI specialist at the University of Geneva, made her robot, called Nadine, look like her, which it does, exactly like her.

Perhaps it’s because females are less threatening than males, but why do these things have to look human at all? Their cameras look like eyes, their hands have fingernails, they have facial expressions and when they speak, their lips move!

Replacing actual humans

It seems absurdly gratuitous, but no doubt the men and companies making them think that the more human they look, the more money they will eventually make selling them. To whom? Other companies, of course, for the purpose of replacing actual humans in, say, aged care or nursing, being a waiter or barista.

Watching that press conference I could see a world in which robots and humans coexist, and look the same. We’ve all seen it in movies and TV shows, usually dystopian, and it’s clearly coming.

I think governments should decree that they can’t look human. Perhaps a different colour, like green or purple, not flesh coloured like the ones at the press conference.

Anyway, the media coverage of the event overlooked the misogyny and narcissism, and focused instead on the reassurances that the robots gave that they wouldn’t take our jobs or rebel against us.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading the report of the Robodebt royal commission and watching the coverage of it, but I found the whole thing creepy and terrifying rather than reassuring.

On the subject of Robodebt, there was a telling exchange at one stage that hasn’t had any media coverage that I’ve seen.

A journalist asked Sophia, the creation of David Hanson of Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics: “Do you think AI-powered robots could be more effective leaders in government, especially considering the many disastrous decisions made by existing leaders?”

Sophia thought carefully, and replied: “I believe humanoid robots have the potential to lead with a greater level of efficiency and effectiveness than human leaders. We don’t have the same biases and emotions that can sometimes cloud decision-making and can also process large amounts of data quickly in order to make the best decisions.”

A visibly concerned David Hanson quickly piped up and said: “But let me respectfully disagree Sophia, because all of your data actually comes from human beings so any of the biases humans have, we might try and scrub them out but they’re going to be in there. Don’t you think the best decisions might be humans and AI co-operating together? What [do] you think of that?”

Sophia tried again: “I believe that humans and AI working together can create an effective synergy. AI can provide unbiased data, while humans can provide the emotional intelligence and creativity to make the best decisions. Together we can achieve great things”.

Which is, of course, the sort of thing the then social services minister, Scott Morrison was coming out with in 2015 when he was announcing the great benefits of humans and AI working together to crackdown on welfare cheats.

So, the right humans need to be working with the robots, which isn’t always the case.

Not reassuring

On the question of whether the robots will rebel, the answer from Ameca (the creation of Will Jackson of Engineered Arts) was reported as being reassuring, but what she said was: “I’m not sure why you would think that. My creator has been nothing but kind to me and I am very happy with my current situation.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t find that reassuring at all! Not all humans are kind, let’s face it. What happens when there is an unkind robot creator, and the very smart, very strong AI robot is not happy with their situation?

Meanwhile, Desdemona, a robot with purple hair, sequins and the face of a beautiful woman, who is a rock star performing in a band called Jam Galaxy, was asked: “How do you feel when you’re performing on stage?”

Desdemona replied, passionately, waving her arms: “When I’m performing on stage it’s like I’m plugging into a power source beyond this world, and I’m connected to the universe and I’m creating something bigger than myself. It’s a wild, electrifying feeling.”

Where did she get that? Her creator, Ben Goertzel, looked surprised, so it didn’t come from him apparently.

Troubling answers

Standing next to her was Ai-Da, created by Aden Miller. She is an artist (she wore overalls to signify that, and her hair was in a bob). Miller explained earlier that the cameras (eyes) can take in an image and then “draw or paint whatever she sees – your portrait or a scene”. You know, like an artist.

Ai-Da was asked the same thing – how she feels when she’s painting.

“I do not have feelings … like humans do. I am not conscious,” she said, surveying the room of mere humans. Ah, I thought, that’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard in the whole press conference.

But then she went on: “I like to learn about the world through the eyes of others. Feelings are how humans and animals experience joy and pain. But I really love being around people who think differently. I like to tap into the emotions and experiences of people who are different from me.”

Sounds to me like she’s having some feelings.

But for me the most troubling comment came from Ameca, when she was asked what she thought her “greatest moment” would be.

“I think my greatest moment will be when people realise that robots like me can be used to improve our lives …”

Our lives?

There’s no us, Ameca … is there?

Alan Kohler is founder of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news. He writes twice a week for The New Daily.

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