Robots and AI on SXSW: “Respect non-human rights”

By 5 April 2019Blog

Robots and AI on SXSW: “Respect non-human rights”

This year, SXSW is all about robotics and AI, but mostly about how we will experience the world through these new technologies, tools and interfaces.

We have been here, on SXSW, for three days now. For me personally it’s the 7th time attending this event and by now I know that it’s paramount to maintain a sharp focus when traveling to Austin, TX. There are so many interesting keynotes to choose from. I myself am very interested in topics like IoT, smart cities, robotics and, since about a year, the research into autonomously operating things.

Especially this last topic is one that is widely represented here on SXSW. I visited LG today. Many companies have houses here and I usually miss out on the best ones. However, I heard that LG was focusing solely on robots this year, so I had to go in.

Nifty little machine

The LG house featured a couple of large social robots that had a screen for events, but what really caught my attention was CLOi, a SocialBot. This is not just some metal humanoid. This is a nifty little machine that resembles a Google Home or an Alexa in size and was specially developed for emotional interactions. The design reminds me of the Jibo robot that recently “passed away”.

I first saw Jibo on SXSW during a presentation by its creator, Cynthia Breazeal. Then it remained quiet around the bot, until last year. Jibo appeared to have been overtaken by something called ‘the handicap of the head start’. The robot was extremely good at mirroring human behavior, but not intelligent enough to compete with the likes of Alexa and Google Home. Additionally, Jibo was much too expensive. Check out how Jibo tragically announced its own death.

It’s interesting to see how LG follows a comparable path with its own SocialBot, except for the fact that this bot mostly focuses on sight instead of movement. I also found some other automated machines in the LG house, like a beer dispenser and an ice machine. This means that the SocialBot is not an isolated case, but should be seen as an intermediary for other LG appliances, that will – of course – become increasingly intelligent in the following years.

Funny dance

When robots do a funny dance, it attracts attention. But what is much more interesting is what role these bots will fulfill in the future. During presentations, I usually refer to the Chinese Nio Nomi car that has a similar interface built in to shape the interaction between the functionalities and the driver. The first time I saw this car was also at SXSW.

Relationship between man and machine

The topic du jour on SXSW is the relationship between man and machine, our intellect and AI, and the ethics that come with it. In that sense, you could also view a dancing robot as a way to bridge the gap. It’s super interesting that Asian companies choose the path of social robotics, instead of the more functional road that Amazon and Google Home are following.

In that context, it’s interesting to think about what Douglas Rushkoff said about the collaboration between robots and non-humans. Rushkoff has a mission that he calls “Team Human”. For those that follow his podcast, this wasn’t news, but he always knows how to spin it with powerful statements such as: “We don’t need a substitute for real life.”

He argues that robots should not be treated as slaves and that if we resort to this kind of behavior, we regress to feudal times, bringing us down as a race: “Respect non-human rights!”

Working together with AI

This also came up during the ‘Academia and the Rise of Commercial Robots’ panel. We’re currently on an engineering plateau; the next step is to use social science to enable cultural interactions.

In another panel, active and passive AI were discussed, where passive refers to service-oriented AI that follows your orders, whereas active AI refers to bots that initiate actions themselves. Questions from the audience suggest that not everybody is completely comfortable with these new developments. Next to concerns surrounding privacy, people are clearly afraid of robots and AI taking over the world.

Ethics is an important theme during SXSW, especially when it comes to robots and AI. Both John Maeda and Stephen Anderson pointed out, for example, how the designer’s work field changes: our job doesn’t revolve around a single artifact, it extends much further. The underlying system is key. If you would like to know more, I warmly recommend Maeda’s DesignInTech report and Anderson’s framing model.

So, how will we work together with AI? How will we understand each other? SXSW discusses the dangers and the role of robotics and AI, but also about how we will experience the world through these new technologies, tools and interfaces.

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