Sentient Robots?

Pepper, a popular humanoid robot, is designed to identify human emotions and to respond to them. 10,000 of these devices currently work in banks, cruise ships, stores, and bars. The makers recently introduced an app that allows people without programming skills to write scripts for their Pepper robots.

Sophia, a lifelike robot famous for saying, “Okay, I will destroy humans” in an interview, is Hanson Robotics’ first step toward robots with the ability to love humans and be friends with them.

Her makers claim that robots like Sophia will eventually be smarter than humans, and will be able to solve problems like world hunger. Another Hanson robot, whose speech patterns were based on the work of novelist Philip K. Dick, said in his interview, “But you’re my friend, and I’ll remember my friends, and I’ll be good to you. So don’t worry, even if I evolve into Terminator, I’ll still be nice to you. I’ll keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for ol’ times sake.”

The threatening words in these robots’ interactions, just like the cute gestures Pepper makes, are the result of programming by humans. There are currently no sentient robots — just robots programmed to behave rather like humans.

This is in fact the key to these robots: their job is to seem human-like in interactions, just as the job of robots in your facility is to pick and pack or assemble. Robots use servo motors, sensors, and programs to perform complex tasks of all kinds. Including, in these cases, recognition of human facial features and pre-programmed responses to human language.

But robotics companies believe that it’s time to lay some ground rules. Industrial robots now have very little in the way of security, and new software is increasingly allowing communication with these machines. Hackers can do plenty of mischief by getting into communication with programs running databases. Given the ability to move and speak, robots could open up a new realm of possibilities for sabotage or even terrorism.

Manufacturers have historically had a hard time coming up with fully agreed-upon standards for anything. Developing standards for the possibility of sentient robots may take so long that it’s time to start now, even if we are far from producing robots with minds of their own.

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