Robot Sex and the Age of Automation.

Kate Darling on Robot-Human Futures.

For anyone who got caught in the Tamagotchi craze of the late ’90s, it’s easy to understand how humans can develop relationships with machines, even if they are digital “pets” living in a black and white screen on a plastic keychain. Humans have a natural urge to anthropomorphize objects—finding “faces” in architecture and cars, naming roombas and boats—projecting human qualities onto inanimate products. For Dr. Kate Darling of MIT’s Media Lab, this urge lies at the center of robot-human interaction.

“Robots are moving from behind the scenes in factories and coming into all of these new spaces,” Darling explains. As robots become integrated into our workplaces, households and public spaces, “people are going to start interacting more with robots as social actors.”

In this new world of robot-human interaction, the role of designers becomes central. “Design is really key to how we end up perceiving and treating robots,” Darling reflects. “Whether people like robots, or trust them, and how we interact with them and in what setting.” In one example from her talk, a Japanese company programmed their industrial robots to join the employees in a set of morning exercises—to be perceived as colleagues, not merely machines. In another example, a motorized medical cart shipped with nameplates, in an attempt to change its relationship with hospital workers from frustration with a “stupid machine” to “Betsy made a mistake, let’s help her out.”

“Now is really the time for designers to get involved and start harnessing [artificial intelligence] which has these really amazing possibilities and brings with it a lot of power,” Darling advises. “But since AI can only do very specific things within specific parameters, I think we need designers and their creativity to do outside of the box thinking. When you take the power of designers and the tool of robotics and AI, magic can happen.”

LinYee Yuan