TechMunch: Do we need more ‘human’ tech?

New Account Executive Leona Hayhoe tackles the humanity in our ever advancing tech. Largely inspired by one new big budget TV show…

I’m not ashamed to admit that this blog was in part inspired by the new HBO show Westworld (great show, by the way, you should definitely watch it). In the very first episode, and I swear this isn’t really a spoiler, an employee of the titular Westworld muses as to whether the guests really want the android hosts that inhabit the park to be more human-like. He asserts that much of the appeal of the park is that the guests know that the hosts aren’t real people. They seem like less of a threat that way.

It may seem like the 3D printed machine-humans of Westworld are a long way from where we are now technologically, but that does not necessarily mean that it will take us long to get there. Considering the rate of technological advancement in just the last twenty years, experts, such as Nick Bostrom, the founding Director of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, predict it will take no longer than 15-20 years until computers no longer need humans to input actions and start ‘thinking for themselves’. Prosthetics are already at a stage where we can trick other people into thinking we’re older/younger/different looking. Brain mapping means we can give people working robotic hands that behave just like their more fleshy counterparts. We are starting to have all of the components to create our own robot armies.

That idea terrifies a lot of people. Some of the fear is derived from the classic ‘foreign entity has come to take all of the jobs’ argument (though they actually create more jobs than they take). But a lot of the fear actually comes from a more emotional place. We’re worried about being replaced as the dominant species, particularly by something we created. We panic about our robot servants fighting back against their creators. We’re uneasy about the idea of something that is both like us and not us. This is only further perpetuated by culture and the media. Making a list of all the films that include malevolent AI would take longer than I have words for this blog to list (Ex Machina, I, Robot, 2001: A Space Odyssey, you get the idea…). Add video games and books to the list and it becomes a bit ridiculous.

Yet we’re still determined to make them, and the more like us, the better. Why? Do we really need them to be more like us? To use a simple example, say you have an issue with your bank. You call the customer service help line and are put through to your friendly, neighbourhood bot. This bot can listen to your enquiries, answer in real time and point you in the right direction, spontaneously creating a solution to your problem. Does it really make a difference whether it sounds/acts/looks human? Does it have any effect on its work performance? Perhaps in terms of cognitive ability and how it creatively creates a solution to given problems, but it does not inherently need all of the quirks of humanity. Yet we still want it.

So if we don’t need it, why do we want it, considering all of our natural apprehensions? The well documented ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect should mean that we are repulsed by a being that appears to look like us and I don’t know about you but I have come across some eerie looking CGI characters in my time.

We are disgusted, yet fascinated by creating something like us. For us, it is the ultimate intellectual endeavour and test of our technological advancement; to create life. And we want that life to seem like us. We like to see the human in things, whether it’s a face in a cloud or on some toast or when we’re convinced our dog has human traits. We want it to be familiar.

The technical difficulty of creating this familiarity in our tech only continues to push us. Along the way we are also making astonishing discoveries that improve our lives (I refer back to the story of robotic hands for the disabled). We may not need the tech to be like us, but wanting it seems to be helping us make other useful discoveries along the way. And that’s no bad thing.

Leona Hayhoe, Account Executive, Technology