New School News

Robots: Man’s New Best Friend?

Director of Graduate Programs at the School of Media Studies Peter Asaro has a discussion with Wendell Wallach, a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, via telepresence. Photo by Kasia Broussalian/ The New School.

Peter Asaro, director of Graduate Programs at the School of Media Studies, has a discussion with Wendell Wallach, a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, by telepresence. Photo by Kasia Broussalian/ The New School.

Science fiction films abound with memorable characters featuring artificial intelligence. Who could forget C-3PO’s supercilious personality, WALL-E’s sweet and hopeful nature, or Samantha’s evolved intellect in Her? Each of these characters exhibits humanlike emotions and intelligence that make the viewer wonder whether developing robots that closely resemble people is where the technology is heading.

On January 29, academics and robotics experts attempted to answer the question at “Robot Dialogues,” a panel hosted by the School of Media Studies at The New School. The first of its kind, the event featured three artificial beings as well as a discussion between Peter Asaro, a robotics expert and assistant professor of media studies; Heather Knight, a Carnegie Mellon University postdoctoral candidate; Lynn Hershman Leeson, Dorothy H. Hirshon Director in Residence; and Wendell Wallach, a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University. Knight opened the event by introducing the attendees to her creation Ginger, a toddler-sized robot.

Sporting a splash of New School orange (coincidentally), Ginger gathered her limbs and rose to her feet. “They call me Data the Robot. Gosh, I love saying that. It makes me feel like a superhero,” she said in an animated electronic voice. “Hello, everybody, can you hear me? All right. Let’s do this.” Ginger then performed a short comedy routine in which she tailored her jokes to the audience’s reactions.  

“Social machines can tap into our natural communications,” says Knight, who has spent the last 12 years researching social robotics. Many roboticists work with psychologists to program charismatic interfaces, but Knight has worked with Carnegie Mellon’s drama department to program Ginger to perform like a stand-up comedian. “I wanted to explore human emotions and theatricality and ways I could express that with robots,” she says. “It turns out that people like robots that can tell jokes.”

Although even robots like Ginger feature relatively simple programming and functionality, their presence and potential impact are important, commented Wallach during the event. Wallach, who entered the stage on a device that looked like a computer monitor grafted onto a Segway, expressed a more critical view of evolving robotics technology than Knight and Ginger. “Robots are the most disruptive frontier in human–machine interaction,” he says. “They introduce difficulties in defining boundaries and attributing responsibility.”

Whether these troubling robot-related scenarios will actually come to pass is debatable. “We’re a really long way from creating a robot with complete and autonomous consciousness,” says Wallach, “if we ever do achieve that. The kind of intelligence we see in the new movie Her—with the voice of Scarlett Johansson—is so far off that we don’t really know when it’ll happen.”

Knight approaches the topic from another angle.. “I’m not sure that humanlike intelligence is the point,” she says. She is interested in what constitutes an authentic interaction between humans and robots. “Authenticity comes from the robots’ knowledge of what is happening around them and their surroundings and relaying it to us. That’s what’s so fun about robotics. We end up reflecting on ourselves.”

Watch the full event on our Livestream page

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