Robots in Social Positions

Stephen Adamson (
Sun, 13 Jun 1999 16:14:43 -0700

Robots in social positions

I recently put up on my website a Survey about the Future.
( I floated a pilot on our
internal network at work and got more results than I currently have on the survey on the Internet (because this one isn't in search engines yet).

In one of the questions of interest, I asked as follows:

In 50 years, which of the following job positions will be completely and independently filled by robots?
I proceeded to list a number of jobs, such as family doctor, surgeon, technical support, waiter, menial / assembly line labor, policeman.

I intentionally said fifty years, although this is wildly overshooting speculation. The correct answer, given fifty years (fifty years!), is *all the above*. But most people don't think that way. Most people think that even in 100 years the world will be relatively unchanged. They are ignoring the rapid advancements coming at us like a freight train. (That kind of ignorance has humanity in "Starship Troopers", in the 22nd century, still using handheld grenades and guns that shoot projectiles at high velocities. :) )

What came about is that social jobs (police, waiter, doctor) are (by 80-90% of people) considered impossible to be filled by robots, ever. Positions that I put in as tests which are *already* filled by robots
(like assembly line labor) get close to (but not exactly!) 100 percent.
Positions like, for instance, a family doctor, can be done now, reasonably well. But somehow people don't ever think that they will be able to *talk* to a robot or respect a robot's decisions or authority.

However, all of that will happen because robots will eventually be able to do things so much better than people and people will always have the tendency and desire to refer their work to others. How will social attitudes change? Will it only be when people start owning robots (like that new Sony dog)? Will there be people who refuse to EVER consent to the authority of a robot policeman? Or will it take until we have realistic androids that are indistinguishable from humans?

Here's a specific thought: imagine a robot is made to be a babysitter. It is specialized to know how to fix meals, generally clean, tell stories, recognize and acknowledge physical danger, get kids dressed and change diapers, and immediately notify authorities and parents in the case of an emergency. In fact, it would improve babysitting because the parents could get an immediate report at any time from their computer at work, and look through the robot's eyes on demand. I would speculate that a design like this is not too far off. The question that comes up is: is that parent leaving the child *alone*? I think that public opinion would be highly divided on the issue. Where would a government step in (to "protect the children")? And the big question: How much of that would be dependent on the degree to which the babysitter is humanoid? Certainly it seems irrelevant (and indeed there would be many better designs-- enough knees for all the kids, four arms, eyes in the back of the head :) ) but you know that the public would be more amenable to a humanoid or some semblance thereof. And (it would seem) the more human-like the more acceptable. Does it make sense? No. Is there any stopping it? Some kind of mass memetic pounding? Or would it take subtlety, introducing incrementally complex "machines" into everyday life until people are talking to robots without really realizing it.

Stephen Adamson