In Defense of Slapping a Robot

Last week’s IDSA conference in Miami--named Project Infusion for its focus on dramatic change in the near future--was a blast. Halfway through a robotics talk by Willow Garage, I thought to myself: "Robots must be slapped...and feel it."

Keenan Wyrobek and Leila Takayama of Willow Garage had just presented many amazing movies of their work with robots. Their lab is like a scene from Star Wars: an arm is tested here, a broken robot is repaired there, and creative mayhem is all over. While I love tech objects and definitely think some of these are close to becoming a ‘being,' I think we should seriously consider slapping a robot.

Pain and shame are two senses missing from any tech ‘being.' I don't have an option if I want to inflict shame or pain--you know the feeling when Vista is crashing or the printer goes nuts? Wouldn’t be nice to just kick the damn thing rather than yell out? I mean real kicking! And kicking knowing that the ‘thing’ will know it has been kicked in the jewels. The algorithm is simple: "Whatever routine you just worked through is really bad, never do that again! Especially if user:gadiamit is involved."

I can see the robot-rights activists coming at me. Welcome! Here's the deal: intelligent life forms understand fear, shame, anger, and pain. We better start programming these feelings into robots if we want truly intelligent robots around.

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  • Steve Portigal

    You might like the stuff Nass and Reeves did at Stanford back in the 90s, Computers Are Social Actors and The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. It led to a spectacular product failure in Microsoft Bob, but the research articulates a lot of what you are pointing to here for robots.