Robotics is one of those fields that always sort of interested me, but only in a passing way. I thought, during my bachelor days, that it would be fun that have a little cybernetic dog that greeted me at the door when I arrived home in the evening. Vacuums that took care of the floor on their own have always seemed an ingenious idea to me. So, occasionally, when I stumble across news stories about advancements in the field, I read them with interest, but then go about my life.
This one, however, was an exception, when I read about how the testing of the robot took place. One specific reference was how attempts were made to knock the robot over while it was walking or climbing. Perhaps it’s because I had only recently read of a robot guiding children on museum tours, but I found myself thinking for a moment, “That’s just mean to try to knock over the poor robot. He’s just doing the job that you told him to do.”
It’s interesting how we alter our perception of something that we’ve built when we build in the shape of something organic. When my phone was doused in liquid a few months ago, I had no such reaction, I simply went to the Apple Store to get a replacement phone. When I noticed a scratch on my car a few weeks ago, I shrugged and went on with life. Those things are just tools. And, so is a robot built in human form, but with one notable difference. The latter is made in its creator’s image.
I doubt that I’m the only person who has this sort of reaction to this, but I also think that those of us who do may well be in the minority. I suspect that there are many of a more engineering mindset who recognize robots as the machines that they are, regardless of whether or not they mimic the shape of bipedal humanoid. I don’t think that makes them cold, calculating individuals. They’re just more realistic than I am.
Except I wonder if that realism becomes something more cold and calculating. That is, I wonder that, when we have no issue with abusing our own creations in the (legitimate) name of testing, if it becomes easier to have a more detached regard for fellow human beings. Certainly, we see a level of detachment begin to manifest in individuals who practice certain professions (some types of medicine, for example, or law enforcement) simply as a coping skill as they are faced with enormous amounts of tragedy so frequently. Perhaps knocking around the robot that you spent years of your life developing could have the same result.
Part of the launching point of a theology of technology is that we are creators, and that we ultimately will attempt to create in our own image. Robotics is currently, I think, the most obvious way in which this appears. If so, then the way in which we treat our creation says a great deal about us, especially as more sophisticated ways are explored to make these creations artificially intelligent. Where does the line between testing to diagnose a problem and outright calloused experimentation lie? How would feel differently if the robot could think independently at any level? This is the philosophical foundation for good science fiction…the kind that often becomes fact.