Robot Revolution: The Psychology behind the fear (Part 2/3 in the series)

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Humans fear anything that does not resemble them or anything that they do not understand or can’t explain. It has been argued that humans are “programmed” to care for beings that are like them and to overlook and sometimes even harm those who are dissimilar. Robots are not really alive and they don’t have any characteristics that define humans. Hence they scare people as their actions cannot be predicted by human perception. We fear that the first chance that they get, robots will eradicate the human race. This argument is derived from the precept that robots will harm us because they are different from us. This sounds very ironic as this would mean that robots possess a very innate human behaviour: hostility based on difference. Early twentieth century saw two factions “Machinists” and “Anti-Machinists” debating whether ‘Man’ was a machine. Later part of the twentieth century saw the discussion shift towards: could machines become human? Anti-machinist Paul Ziff dismissed the argument based on the inability of machines to acquire feelings and hence consciousness. Hillary Putnam famously countered this argument by saying that, “there is no correct answer to the question: Is the robot conscious?

The question calls for decision not a discovery. If we are to make a decision, it seems preferable to me to extend our concept so that robots are conscious – for ‘discrimination’ based on the ‘softness’ or ‘hardness’ of the body parts of a synthetic ‘organism’ seems as silly as discriminatory treatment of humans on the basis of skin colour” There are plenty of examples of hostility towards life forms that do not conform to the de?nition of what it is to be a human. Birth control for the poor, experimentation on ‘incompetents’ and racial minorities, forced sterilization of imbeciles and other in?rm or abnormal people was not a violation of fundamental constitutional rights in many parts of the world till as late as 1980’s. Mutation or variation from the human image whether it is natural or arti?cial has always led to revulsion. But it’s not just the differences that frighten humans. Surprisingly in the case of robots it’s also the similarities. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori came up with the hypothesis called ‘the Uncanny Valley’. He proposed that humans are fascinated, even attracted to robots as they gain human qualities – eyes, ears, and an identi?able face. But as soon as robots gain human resemblance, the fascination and attraction turn to repulsion. He noted that human participants in the experiment become agitated and uncomfortable by the transformation in robots with some refusing to allow the robot to stand or move behind them as “Movement is a sign of life and as such seems wrong”. The ability of doing tasks that humans have long regarded as ‘ours’ like moving independently, decision-making, identifying things etc., robots expose and transgress the boundaries humans have used to differentiate themselves from other beings. They challenge the idea that ‘intelligence’ is the unique human trait and bring the human dominance under threat. The question now is how do humans ‘humanize’ themselves, and ‘dehumanize’ others? It’s done through abjection, in which we take over an identity by rejecting things that we despise in ourselves. People have a tendency to attribute more human characteristics to themselves than to others. According to Haslam and colleagues’ framework, human characteristics can be divided into Human nature (HN) and Human uniqueness (HU). HN refers to characteristics that are seen as essential or fundamental to all humans, such as openness, emotionality, vitality, and warmth. It also refers to the tendency to be emotionally reactive, unrestrained, and open. HU refers to characteristics that are believed to distinguish humans from (other) animals, and involve re?nement, civility, higher cognition, and other socially learned qualities. HU also extends beyond competence (e.g., intelligence or conscientiousness) to include other uniquely human qualities such as civility and re?nement. When HU attributes are denied to people they are explicitly or implicitly likened to animals, and seen as immature, coarse, irrational, or backward. When HN attributes are denied to people they are explicitly or implicitly likened to objects or machines and seen as cold, rigid, inert, and lacking emotion. These elements of humanness de?ne whether someone deserves protection from harm and whether rehabilitation or blame and punishment will be seen as appropriate responses to their misdeeds. People seen as high in HN received more moral praise for moral acts and were viewed as deserving protection from immoral behaviour. Hence robots that are rated low on HN are less deserving of moral treatment and rehabilitation and less capable of proactively contributing to the moral community.

Dehumanization creates a divide and encourages humans to act against anyone that they deem to be nonhuman. It has been considered as the key reason behind racism, xenophobia and other distinctions and is often considered as the cognitive process that has made mass genocide and mass killing both thinkable and do-able. Below is an extract from an article which I found interesting. “Sì, abbiamo un’anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot – “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots” Giulio Giorello And I thought, exactly. That’s the view. Yes, we have a soul, but in what sense? In the sense that our brains, unlike the brains of dogs and cats and chimpanzees and dolphins, our brains have functional structures that give our brains powers that no other brains have – powers to look-ahead, primarily. We can understand our position in the world, we can see the future, and we can understand where we came from. We know that we’re here. No buffalo knows it’s a buffalo, but we know that we’re members of Homo sapiens, and it’s the knowledge that we have, our capacity to think ahead and to reflect and to evaluate and to evaluate our evaluations, and evaluate the grounds for our evaluations.? It’s this expandable capacity to represent reasons that we have that gives us a soul. But what’s it made of? It’s made of neurons. It’s made of lots of tiny robots. And we can actually explain the structure and operation of that kind of soul, whereas an eternal, immortal, immaterial soul is just a metaphysical rug under which you sweep your embarrassment for not having any explanation.”

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