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.