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The following is a conversation with Kate Darling, a researcher at MIT interested in social robotics, robot ethics and generally how technology intersects with society. She explores the emotional connection between human beings and lifelike machines, which for me is one of the most exciting topics in all of artificial intelligence, as she writes in her bio. She's a caretaker of several domestic robots, including her puleo, dinosaur robots named Yoki, Peter and Mr. Spagetti.


She's one of the funniest and brightest minds I've ever had the fortune to talk to. This conversation was recorded recently, but before the outbreak of the pandemic, for everyone feeling the burden of this crisis, I'm sending love your way. This is the artificial intelligence podcast if you enjoy it. Subscribe on YouTube, review five stars and have a podcast. Supporting and patron are simply connected me on Twitter. Allex Friedman spelled F.R. IDM man. As usual, I'll do a few minutes of ads now and never any ads in the middle that can break the flow of the conversation.


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So I think if I taught that class today, it would look very, very different.


Robot ethics, it sounds very science fiction, especially did back then. But I think that. Some of the issues that people in robot ethics are concerned with or just around the ethical use of robotic technology in general, so, for example, responsibility for harm, automated weapons systems, things like privacy and data security, things like, you know, automation and labor markets. And then personally, I'm really interested in some of the social issues that come out of our social relationships with robots, one on one relationship with robots.


Yeah, I think most of the stuff we have to talk about is like one on one social stuff. That's what I love. And I think that's what your you love as well. And there are expert in but a societal level. There's like there's a presidential candidate now, Andrew Yang, running concern about automation and robots and in general taking away jobs. He has a proposal of UBI universal basic income of everybody gets a thousand bucks. Yeah.


As a way to sort of save you if you lose your job from automation to allow you time to discover what it is that you would like to or even love to do.




So I lived in Switzerland for 20 years and universal basic income has been more of a topic.


They're separate from the whole robots and jobs issues. So it's so interesting to me to see kind of these Silicon Valley people latch onto this concept that came from a very kind of left wing socialist, you know, kind of a different place in Europe.


But on the automation and labour markets topic, I think that it's very so sometimes in those conversations, I think people overestimate where robotic technology is right now. And we also have this fallacy of constantly comparing robots to humans and thinking of this as a one to one replacement of jobs.


So even like Bill Gates a few years ago said something about, you know, maybe we should have a system that taxes robots for taking people's jobs.


And it just I mean, I'm sure that was taken out of context. You know, he's a really smart guy, but that sounds to me like kind of viewing it as a one to one replacement versus viewing this technology as kind of a supplemental tool. That, of course, is going to shake up a lot of stuff. It's going to change the job landscape.


But I don't see, you know, robots taking all the jobs in the next 20 years.


That's just not how it's going to work. Right.


So maybe drifting into the land of more personal relationships with robots, interaction and so on. I got to warn you, I go I may ask some silly philosophical questions, I apologize. Oh, please do. OK. Do you think humans will abuse robots in their interactions? So you've had a lot of and we'll talk about a sort of anthropomorphising version and and work, you know, this this intricate dance, emotional dance between humans and robot.


But this seems to be also a darker side where people when they treat.


The other, as servants especially, they can be a little bit abusive or a lot abusive, do you think about that? I do worry about that.


Yeah, I do think about that.


So, I mean, one of my one of my main interests is the fact that people subconsciously treat robots like living things and even though they know that they're interacting with a machine and what it means in that context to behave, you know, violently. I don't know if you could say abuse because you're not actually, you know, abusing the inner mind of the robot. The robot is then doesn't have any feelings as far as you know.


Well, yeah, it also depends on how we define feelings and consciousness. But I think that's another area where people kind of overestimate where we currently are with the technology. Like the robots are not even as smart as insects right now. And so I'm not worried about abuse in that sense. But it is interesting to think about what does people's behavior towards these things mean for our own behavior? Is it desensitizing the people to be verbally abusive to a robot or even physically abusive?


And we don't know whether it's a similar connection from like if you play violent video games, what connection does that have to desensitization to violence?


That's actually I haven't even read literature on that. I wonder about that. Because everything I've heard, people don't seem to any longer be so worried about violent video games, correct?


We've seen the research on it is it's a difficult thing to research. So it's sort of inconclusive. But we seem to have gotten the sense, at least as a society, that people can compartmentalize when it's something on a screen and you're like, you know, shooting a bunch of characters or running over people with your car, that doesn't necessarily translate to you doing that in real life.


We do, however, have some concerns about children playing violent video games. And so we do restrict it there. I'm not sure that's based on any real evidence either, but it's just the way that we've kind of decided, you know, we want to be a little more cautious there.


Now, the reason I think robots are a little bit different is because there is a lot of research showing that we respond differently to something in our physical space than something on a screen. We will treat it much more viscerally, much more like a physical actor.


And so it's it's totally possible that this is not a problem. And it's the same thing as violence in videogames. You know, maybe, you know, restrict it with kids to be safe. But adults can do what they want. But we just need to ask the question again, because we don't have any evidence at all yet.


Maybe there's an intermediate place to. I did my research on Twitter. By research, I mean, scrolling through your Twitter feed, you mentioned that you were going at some point to an animal law conference. So I have to ask, do you think there's something that we can learn from animal rights that guys are thinking about robots?


Oh, I think there is so much to learn from that. I'm actually writing a book on it right now. That's why I'm going to this conference. So I'm I'm writing a book that looks at the history of animal domestication and how we've used animals for work, for weaponry, for companionship. And, you know, one of the things the book, the book tries to do is move away from this fallacy that I talked about of comparing robots and humans, because I don't think that's the right analogy.


But I do think that on a social level, even on a social level, there's so much that we can learn from looking at that history, because throughout history we've treated most animals like tools, like products, and then some of them we've treated differently.


And we're starting to see people treat robots in really similar ways. So I think it's a really helpful predictor to how we're going to interact with the robots.


Do you think we'll look back at this time like one hundred years from now and see what we do to animals is like similar the way we view like the Holocaust with the World War two?


That's a great question. I mean, I hope so. I am not. Convinced that we will, but I often wonder, you know, what are my grandkids going to view as, you know, abhorrent that my generation did, that they would never do?


And I'm like, well, what's the big deal? You know, it's it's a fun question to ask yourself. It always seems that there's atrocities that we discover later.


So the things that at the time people didn't see, as you know, look at everything from slavery to any kinds of abuse throughout history to the kind of insane wars that were happening to the way war was carried out and rape and the kind of violence that was happening during war in that we now, you know, we see his atrocities, but at the time perhaps didn't as much. And so now. I have this intuition that I have this worry, maybe you're going to probably criticize me, but I do anthropomorphize robots.


I have I don't see a fundamental philosophical difference in a robot and a human being.


In terms of once the capabilities are matched. So the fact that we're really far away doesn't in terms of capabilities and that from from natural language processing, understanding generation to just reasoning and all that stuff, I think once you saw it, I see this is a very gray area and I don't feel comfortable with the kind of abuse that people throw at robots. Subtle. But I can see it becoming I can see basically a civil rights movement for robots in the future.


Do you think you put it in the form of a question? Do you think robots should have some kinds of rights?


Well, it's interesting because I came at this originally, from your perspective, I was like, you know what? There's no fundamental difference between technology and like human consciousness. Like, we can probably recreate anything. We just don't know how yet. And so there's no reason not to give machines the same rights that we have once. Like you say, they're kind of on an equivalent level.


But I realize that that is kind of a far future question I still think we should talk about, because I think it's really interesting.


But I realize that it's actually we might need to ask the robot race question even sooner than that while the machines are still, you know, quote unquote, really, you know, dumb and not on our level because of the way that we perceive them.


And I think one of the lessons we learn from looking at the history of animal rights and one of the reasons we may not get to a place in 100 years where we view it as wrong to, you know, eat or otherwise, you know, use animals for our own purposes is because historically we've always protected those things that we relate to the most.


So one example is whales. No one gave a shit about the whales. Am I allowed to swear?


You swear as much as you want freedom.


Yeah. No one gave a shit about the whales until someone recorded them singing. And suddenly people were like, oh, this is a beautiful creature and now we need to save the whales.


And that started the whole Save the Whales movement in the 70s. So. I'm as much as I am, and I think a lot of people want to believe that we care about consistent biological criteria, that's not historically how we formed our alliances is a what?


Why do we why do we believe that all humans are created equal killing of a human being, no matter who the human being is?


That's what I meant by equality is bad.


And then because I'm connecting that to robots and I'm wondering whether mortality. So the killing act is what makes something that's the fundamental first. Right. So I'm I am currently allowed to take a shotgun and shoot a Roomba.


I think I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure it's not considered murder, right, or even shutting them off. So that's that's where the line appears to be right. Is its mortality a critical thing here?


I think here, again, like the animal analogy is really useful because you're also allowed to shoot your dog, but people won't be happy about it.


So we give we do give animals certain protections from like.


You know, you're not allowed to torture your dog and set it on fire, at least in most states and countries, you know, but you're still allowed to treat it like a piece of property and a lot of other ways. And so we draw these, you know, arbitrary lines all the time. And, you know, there's a lot of philosophical thought on why viewing humans as something unique.


Is not is just speciesism and not, you know, based on any criteria that would actually justify making a difference between us and other species, do you think in general people.


Most people are good. Do you think do you think there's evil and good in all of us? That's revealed through our circumstances and through our interactions. I like to view myself as a person who believes that there's no absolute evil and good and that everything is, you know, gray. But I do think it's an interesting question, like when I see people being violent towards robotic objects.


You said that bothers you because the robots might someday, you know, be smart. And is that what really bothers me?


Because it reveals. So I personally believe because I've studied Wagemans, I'm Jewish, I studied the Holocaust and World War Two, except, well, I personally believe that most of us have evil in us. That. What bothers me is the abuse of robots reveals that evil in human beings. Yeah, and I think it doesn't bother me. It's I think it's an opportunity for roboticists to make help people find the better angels of our nature right now. That abuse isn't just a fun side thing.


That's a you revealing a dark part that you shouldn't there should be hidden deep inside.


Yeah, I mean, you laugh, but some of our research does indicate that maybe people's behavior towards robots reveals something about their tendencies for empathy, generally, even using very simple robots that we have today that clearly don't feel anything.


So, you know, Westworld is maybe, you know, not so far off. And it's like, you know, depicting the bad characters as willing to go around and shoot and rape the robots and the good characters is not wanting to do that, even without assuming that the robots have consciousness.


So there's an opportunity. It's an opportunity to almost practice empathy. The robots is an opportunity to practice empathy. I agree with you. Some people would say, why are we practicing empathy on robots instead of on our fellow humans or on animals that are actually alive and experience the world?


And I don't agree with them because I don't think empathy is a zero sum game. And I do think that it's a muscle that you can train and that we should be doing that.


But some people disagree. So the interesting thing I've heard, you know, raising kids a sort of. Asking them or telling them to be nice to the smart speakers, to Alexa and so on, saying please and so on during the requests, I don't know if I'm a huge fan of that idea because that's towards the idea of practicing empathy.


I feel like politeness. I'm always polite to all the all the systems that we build, especially anything that speech interaction based like when we talk to the car, I always have a pretty good detector for please to I feel like there should be a room for encouraging empathy in those interactions. Yeah, OK, so I agree with you, so I'm going to play devil's advocate here. So what is the what is the devil's advocate argument there?


The devil's advocate argument is that if you are the type of person who has abusive tendencies or needs to get some sort of like behavior like that out needs an outlet for it, that it's great to have a robot that you can scream at so that you're not screaming at a person.


And we just don't know whether that's true, whether it's an outlet for people or whether it just kind of, as my friend once said, trains their cruelty muscles.


It makes them more cruel in other situations.


Oh, boy. Yeah. And that expands to other topics which that I don't know. You know, there's a topic of sex, which is weird, one that I tend to avoid from robotics perspective.


And most of the general public doesn't. They talk about sex robots and so on. Is that an area you've touched at all? Research was. I like the way, because that's what people imagine sort of any kind of interaction between humans and robots shows any kind of compassion. They immediately think from a product perspective in the near term is sort of expansion of what pornography is and all that kind of stuff.


Yeah, that's kind of you to like characterize it as though they're thinking rationally about product. I feel like sex robots are just such a titillating news hook for people that they become like the story.


And it's really hard to not get fatigued by it when you're in the space because you tell someone you do human robot interaction. Of course, the first thing they want to talk about is sex robots. He said, yeah, it happens a lot. And it's it's unfortunate that I'm so fatigued by it, because I do think that there are some interesting questions that become salient when you talk about sex with robots. See what I think would happen when people get sex robots, like if some guys like guys get female sex robots, where I think there's an opportunity for is an actual like like they'll actually interact.


What I'm trying to say, they won't outside of the sex will be the most fulfilling part, like the interaction is like the folks who there's movies and the street who pay a prostitute and then end up just talking to her the whole time. They feel like there's an opportunity. It's like most guys and people in general joke about the sex act. But really people are just lonely inside.


They're looking for a connection. Many of them.


And it would be unfortunate if that it's that connection is established through the sex industry.


I feel like it should go into the front door of like people are lonely and they want a connection.


Well, I also feel like we should kind of deep, you know, destigmatize the sex industry because, you know, even prostitution, like they're prostitutes that specialize in disabled people who don't have the same kind of opportunities to explore their sexuality.


So it's I feel like we should, like, destigmatize all of that generally.


Yeah, but yeah, that connection, that loneliness is an interesting topic that you bring up, because while people are constantly worried about robots replacing humans and oh, if people get sex robots and the sex is really good, then they won't want their partner or whatever.


But we rarely talk about robots actually filling a hole where there's nothing. Yeah.


And what benefit that can provide to people.


Yeah. I think that's an exciting there's a whole there's a giant hole that's unfillable by humans is asking too much of your people, your friends and people you're in a relationship with in your family to fill that hole because you know, it's exploring.


The full, you know, exploring the full complexity and richness of who you are. Who are you really like people? Your family doesn't have enough patience to really sit there and listen to who are you really? And I feel like there's an opportunity to really make that connection with robots.


I just feel like we're complex as humans and we're capable of lots of different types of relationships. So whether that's with family members, with friends, with our pets or with robots, I feel like there's space for all of that. And all of that can provide value in a different way. Yeah, absolutely, so I'm jumping around currently, most of my work is autonomous vehicles, so the most popular topic among the general public is the trolley problem.


So most, most, most roboticists, the kind of hate this question. But what do you think of this thought experiment? What do you think we can learn from it outside of the silliness of the actual application of it to the autonomous vehicle? I think it's still an interesting ethical question. And that in itself, just like much of the interaction with robots, has something to teach us. But from your perspective, do you think there's anything there?


Well, I think you're right that it does have something to teach us because. But but I think what people are forgetting and all of these conversations is the origins of the trolley problem and what it was meant to show us, which is that there is no right answer and that sometimes our moral intuition that comes to us instinctively is not actually what we should follow if we care about creating systematic rules that apply to everyone.


So I think that as the philosophical concept, it could teach us at least that. But that's not how people are using it right now like we have. And these are friends of mine and like I love them dearly and their project as a lot of value.


But if we're viewing the moral machine project as what we can learn from the trolley problems, the moral machine is I'm sure you're familiar. It's this website that you can go to and it gives you different scenarios like, oh, you're in a car, you can decide to run over, you know, these two people or this child, you know, what do you choose? Do you choose the homeless person? You choose the person who's jaywalking. And so it pits these like moral choices against each other and then tries to crowdsource the quote unquote, correct answer, which is really interesting and I think valuable data.


But I don't think that's what we should base our rules in autonomous vehicles on, because it is exactly what the trolley problem is trying to show, which is your first instinct might not be the correct one if you look at rules that then have to apply to everyone and everything.


So how do we encode these ethical choices in interaction with robots? So, for example, the autonomous vehicles, there is a serious ethical question of do I protect myself?


Does my life have higher priority than the life of another human being, because that changes certain control decisions that you make, so if your life matters more than other human beings, then you'd be more likely to swerve out of your current lane.


So currently, the automated emergency braking systems that just break, they don't ever swerve.


Right. So swerving into oncoming traffic or or no. Just in a different lane can cause significant harm to others. But it's possible that it causes less harm to you. So that's a difficult ethical question.


Do you. You do you do you have a hope that. Like the trolley problem is not supposed to have a right answer, right? Do you hope that when we have robots at the table will be able to discover the right answer for some of these questions? Well, what's happening right now, I think, is this this question that we're facing of, you know, what ethical rules should we be programming into the machines is revealing to us that our ethical rules are much less programmable than we probably thought before.


And so that's a really valuable insight. I think that that these issues are very complicated and that in in a lot of these cases, it's you can't really make that call, like not even as a legislator.


And so what's going to happen in reality, I think, is that, you know. Car manufacturers are just going to try and avoid the problem and avoid liability in any way possible or like they're going to always protect the driver because who's going to buy a car if it's programmed to kill someone, kill, kill you instead of someone else? So that's what's going to happen in reality. But what did you mean by once we have robots at the table, like, do you mean when they can help us figure out what to do?


No, I mean when robots are part of the ethical decisions. So, no, no, not they help us. Well. Uh oh, you mean when it's like I run over a robot or a person, right, that kind of thing. So what went on?


So when you it's exactly what you said, which is when you have to encode the ethics into an algorithm, you start to try to really understand what are the fundamentals of the decision making process you make to make certain decisions, such as you, um, like capital punishment, should you take a person's life or not to punish them for a certain crime?


Sort of. You can use you can develop an algorithm to make that decision.


Right. And the hope is that the act of making that algorithm. However you make it so, there's a few approaches that will help us actually get to the core of what is right and what is wrong under our current societal standards.


But isn't that what's happening right now? And we're realizing that we don't have a consensus on what's right and wrong. I mean, in politics in general?


Well, like when we're thinking about these trolley problems and autonomous vehicles and how to program ethics into machines and how to, you know, make. Make A.I. algorithms fair and equitable, we're realizing that this is so complicated and it's complicated in part because there is doesn't seem to be a one right answer in any of these case.


Do hope for like one of the ideas of the moral machine is that crowdsourcing can help us converge towards like democracy can help us converge towards the right answer. Do you have a hope for crowdsourcing?


Well, yes and no. So I think that in general, you know, I have a legal background and policymaking is often about trying to suss out, you know, what rules does this society's particular society agree on and then trying to codify that. So the law makes these choices all the time and then tries to adapt according to changing culture. But in the case of the moral machine project, I don't think that people's choices on that website necessarily necessarily reflect what laws they would want in place if given.


I think you would have to ask them a series of different questions in order to get what their consensus is. I agree with that.


That has to do more with the artificial nature of I mean, they're showing some cute icons on a screen that's that's almost so if you, for example, who do a lot of work in virtual reality, as if you make if you put those same people into virtual reality where they have to make that decision, the decision would be very different.


I think I agree with that. That's one aspect. And the other aspect is it's a different question to ask someone, would you run over the homeless person or the doctor in this scene or do you want cars to always run over the homeless people?


I say, yeah. So let's talk about anthropomorphism to me. Anthropomorphism, if I can pronounce it correctly, is is one of the most fascinating phenomena from both engineering perspective and psychology perspective, machine learning perspective and robotics in general. Can you step back and define anthropomorphism how you see it?


In general terms, in your in your work. Sure, so anthropomorphism is this tendency that we have to project human like traits and behaviors and qualities onto non humans.


And we often see it with animals like, well, we'll project emotions on animals that may or may not actually be there.


We often see that we're trying to interpret things according to our own behavior when we get it wrong. But we do it with more than just animals. We do it with objects, you know, teddy bears. We see, you know, faces in the headlights of cars. And we do it with robots very, very, extremely.


Do think that can be engineered, can never be used to enrich an interaction. Oh yeah. And they I systemone and the human. Oh yeah.


For sure. And do you see it being used that way often.


Like. I don't. I haven't seen whether it's Aleksa or any of the smart speaker systems often trying to optimize for the anthropomorphised and. You said you haven't seen I haven't seen that they keep moving away from that, I think they're afraid of that, that they actually so I only recently found out.


But did you know that Amazon has like a whole team of people who are just there to work on Alexa's personality?


So I know. Depends what you mean by personality. I didn't know I didn't know that exact thing. But I do know that the how the voice is perceived is worked on a lot. Well, if it's a pleasant feeling about the voice, but that has to do more with the texture of the sound and the audio and so on. But personality is more like. It's like, what's your favorite beer when you ask there and the personality team is different for every country to like, there's a different personality for a German Aleksa than there is for American Aleksa.


That's it.


I think it's very difficult to, you know, use the really, really harness the anthropomorphism with these voice assistance, because the voice interface is still very primitive. And I think that in order to get people to really suspend their disbelief and treat a robot like it's alive, less is sometimes more. You want them to project onto the robot and you want the robot to not disappoint their expectations for how it's going to answer behave in order for them to have this kind of illusion.


And with Alexa, I don't think we're there yet or Siri that just they're just not good at that. But if you look at some of the more animal like robots, like the baby seal that they use with the dementia patients, it's a much more simple design. Doesn't try to talk to you, can't disappoint you in that way. It just makes little movements and sounds and people stroke it and it responds to their touch. And that is like a very effective way to harness people's tendency to kind of treat the robot like a living thing.


Yeah, so you bring up some interesting ideas in your paper chapter, I guess, anthropomorphic framing, human robot interaction that I read the last time schedule. This was a long time ago.


What are some good and bad cases of anthropomorphism in your perspective?


Like one of the good ones and bad?


Well, I should start by saying that, you know, while design can really enhance the anthropomorphism, it doesn't take a lot to get people to treat a robot like it's alive, like people will.


Over eighty five percent of rumbas have a name, which I don't know the numbers for your regular type of vacuum cleaner, but they're not that high.


Right. So people will feel bad for the Roomba when it gets stuck, they'll send it in for repair and want to get the same one back and that that one is not even designed to, like, make you do that.


So I think that some of the cases where it's maybe a little bit concerning that anthropomorphism is happening is when you have something that's supposed to function like a tool and people are using it in the wrong way. And one of the concerns is military robots wear. So, gosh, 2000. Like early twenties, which is a long time ago, iRobot, the Rumbo company, made this robot called the pack bot that was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan with the bomb disposal units that were there.


And the soldiers became very emotionally attached to the robots.


And that's fine until a soldier risks his life to save a robot, which you really don't want. But they were treating them like pets, like they would name them. They would give them funerals with gun salutes. They would get really upset and traumatized when the robot got broken. So you in situations where you want a robot to be a tool in particular, when it's supposed to do a dangerous job, they don't want a person doing it. It can be hard when people get emotionally attached to it.


That's maybe something that you would want to discourage. Another case for concern is maybe when companies try to leverage the emotional attachment to exploit people.


So if it's something that's not in the consumer's interest, trying to sell them products or services or exploit an emotional connection to keep them paying for a cloud service for a social robot or something like that might be, I think that's a little bit concerning as well.


Yeah, the emotional manipulation, which probably happens behind the scenes now with some like social networks and so on, but making it more explicit. What's your favorite robot? Like fictional or real, no real real robot, which you have felt a connection with or not like not not anthropomorphic connection, but I mean, like you sit back and sit down. This is an impressive. System. Wow, so two different robots, so the the Pleo baby dinosaur robot that is no longer sold, that came out in 2007.


That one I was very impressed with. It was.


But but from an anthropomorphic perspective, I was impressed with how much I bonded with it, how much I like wanted to believe that it had this inner life.


Can you describe the can you describe what it is? How big is it? What can actually do. Yeah.


Pleo is about the size of a small cat. It had a lot of like motors that gave it this kind of lifelike movement. It had things like touch sensors and an infrared camera. So it had all these cool little technical features, even though it was a toy. And the thing that really struck me about it was that it could mimic pain and distress really well.


So if you held it up by the tail, it had a tilt sensor that told it what direction it was facing and it would start to squirm and cry out. If you hit it too hard, it would start to cry. So it was very impressive in design.


And was the second robot that you were. You said there might have been two that you liked. Yeah. So the Boston Dynamics robots are just impressive feat of engineering. Have you met them in person?


Yeah, I recently got a chance to go visit. And, you know, I was always one of those people who watched the videos and was like, this is super cool. But also it's a product video. Like, I don't know how many times that they had to shoot this to get it right. But visiting them, I you know, I'm pretty sure that I was very impressed, let's put it that way. Yeah.


In terms of the control, I think that was a transformational moment for me when I'm at Spot Mini in person because. OK, maybe this is a psychology experiment, but I anthropomorphized the crap out of it, so I immediately it was like my best friend, right?


I think it's really hard for anyone to watch sport move and not feel like it has the agency.


Yeah, this movement, especially the arm on sport, many really ofay obviously looks like a head.




That and they say, no, we mean it that way, but obviously it looks exactly like that. And so it's almost impossible to not think of it as almost like the baby dinosaur, but slightly larger. And this movement of the of course the intelligence is their whole idea is that it's not supposed to be intelligent. It's a platform on which you build higher intelligence. It's actually a really, really dumb it's just a basic movement platform. Yeah, but even dumb robots can we can immediately respond to them in this visceral way.


What are your thoughts about Sophea, the robot, this kind of mix of some basic natural language processing and basically an art experiment?


Yeah, an art experiment is a good way to characterize it. I'm much less impressed with Sofia than I am with Boston Dynamics. She said she likes you. She says she admires you. Is yeah.


She followed me on Twitter at some point. Yeah.


And she tweets about how much she likes you. So. So what does that mean? I have to be nice or not. I was emotionally manipulative.


You know, how how do you think of the whole thing that happened with Sofia is quite a large number of people kind of immediately had a connection and thought that maybe were far more advanced with robotics than we are or actually didn't even think much. I was surprised how little people cared.


That they kind of assumed that, well, of course, I can do this. Yeah. And then they if they assume that I felt they should be more impressed. Yeah.


Well, you know what I mean. Like, really overestimate where we are. And so when something I don't even I don't even think the fear was very impressive or is very impressive.


I think she's kind of a puppet. To be honest. But yeah, I think people have are a little bit influenced by science fiction and pop culture to think that we should be further along than we are.


So what's your favorite robots in movies and fiction? Wally, Wally. What do you like about Wally, the humor, the cuteness?


The the perception control systems operating, and while that makes it over, just in general, the design of Wally the robot, I think that animators figured out, you know, starting in like the nineteen forties how to create characters that don't look real but look like something that's even better than real, that we really respond to and think is really cute. They figured out how to make them move and look in the right way. And Wally is just such a great example of that.


You think eyes, big eyes or big something that kind of ayash. So it's always playing on some.


Aspect of the human face, right, often, yeah, so big eyes. Well, I think one of the one of the first, like, animations to really play with this was Bambi, and they weren't originally going to do that. They were originally trying to make the deer look as lifelike as possible, like they brought deer into the studio and had a little zoo there so the animators could work with them.


And then at some point they're like, if we make really big eyes and like a small nose and like big cheeks, kind of more like a baby face, then people like it even better than if it looks real.


Do you think the future of things like Aleksa in the home has a possibility to take advantage of that, to build on that, to create these systems that are better than real, that created close human connection?


I can pretty much guarantee you without having any knowledge that those companies are working on that on that design behind the scenes. Like, I can't be sure.


I totally disagree with you freely. So that's what I'm interested in. I'd like to build such a company. I know a lot of those folks and they're afraid of that because you don't. Well, how do you make money off of it? But even just like making Alexa look a little bit more interesting than just like a cylinder would do so much.


It's an interesting thought, but I don't think people from Amazon perspective are looking for that kind of connection.


They want you to be addicted to the services provided by Alexa, not to the device, so that the device itself, it's felt that you can lose a lot because if you create a connection and then it creates more opportunity for frustration for for negative stuff than it does for positive stuff.


I think the way they think about it, that's interesting. I agree that there is it's very difficult to get right and you have to get it exactly right.


Otherwise, you wind up with Microsoft's Clippy. OK, easy.


Now, what's what's your problem with Collopy? You like Clippy, your friend?


Yeah, I was just I just just talked to the we just had this argument and they said Microsoft CTO and he said he said he's not bringing Clippy back, they're not bringing Clippy back. And that's very disappointing. I think it was Clippy was the greatest assistance we've ever built. It was a horrible attempt, of course, but it's the best we've ever done because there was a real attempt to have it like an actual personality. And I mean, it was obviously technology was way not there at the time of being able to be a recommender system for assisting you in anything and typing in word or any kind of other application, but still was an attempt of personality that was legitimate that I thought was brave.


Yes. Oh, yes. OK, you know, you've convinced me I'll be slightly less hard unclipped. And I know I have like an army of people behind me who awesome is Clippy.


So really, I want to meet these people. Who are these people? It's the people who like to hate stuff when it's there and and miss it when it's gone.


So everyone knows. Exactly. All right.


So Anqi and Djibo, the two companies, two amazing companies, the social robotics companies that have recently been closed down. Yes.


So why do you think it's so hard to create a personal robotics company? So making a business out of essentially something that people would anthropomorphize have a deep connection with, why is it so hard to make it work, the business case, not there or what is it? I think it's a number of different things. I don't think it's going to be this way forever.


I think at this point in time it takes so much work to build something that only barely meets people's like minimal expectations because of science fiction and pop culture, giving people this idea that we should be further than we already are.


Like when people think about a robot assistant in the home, they think about Rosie from the Jetsons or something like that. And Anqi and and you did such a beautiful job with the design and getting that interaction just right. But I think people just wanted more they wanted more functionality. I think you're also right that, you know, the business case isn't really there because there hasn't been a killer application that's useful enough to get people to adopt the technology in great numbers.


I think what we did see from the people who did, you know, get Djibo is a lot of them became very emotionally attached to it. But that's not I mean, it's kind of like the Palm Pilot back in the day.


Most people are like, why do I need this? Why would I? They don't see how they would benefit from it until they have it or some other company comes in and makes it a little better. Yeah, how how far away are we? Do you think I mean, how hard is this problem? It's a good question and I think it has a lot to do with people's expectations. And those keep shifting depending on what science fiction is popular.


But also it's two things. It's people's expectation and people's need for an emotional connection. Yeah, and I believe the need is pretty high.


Yes. But I don't think we're aware of it. That's right.


There's like I really think this is like the life as we know it.


So we just kind of gotten used to it of really I hate to be dark because I have close friends, but we've gotten used to really never being close to anyone. All right.


And we're deeply I believe this is happening. I think we're deeply lonely, all of us, even those in deep, fulfilling relationships. In fact, what makes us so fulfilling, I think, is that they at least tap into that deep loneliness a little bit. But I feel like there's more opportunity to explore that.


That doesn't it doesn't interfere with the human relationships you have. It expands more on the that. Yeah. The rich, deep, unexplored complexity. That's all of us weird apes.


OK, I think you're right.


Do you think it's possible to fall in love with a robot? Oh, yeah, totally.


Do you think it's possible to have a long term committed, monogamous relationship with the robot? Well, yeah, there are lots of different types of long term, committed, monogamous relationships, I think monogamous implies like you're not going to see other humans sexually or like you basically on Facebook have to say I'm in a relationship with this person, this robot I just don't like.


Again, I think this is comparing robots to humans when I would rather compare them to pets like you get a robot, it fulfills, you know, this loneliness that you have in maybe not the same way as a pet, maybe in a different way. That is even, you know, supplemental in a different way.


But, you know, I'm not saying that people won't, like, do this, be like, oh, I want to marry my robot or I want to have like a sexual relationship, monogamous relationship with my robot. But I don't think that that's the main use case for them. But you think that there's still a gap between human and Pat? So between husband and pet, there's a different relationship in engineering, so that that's a gap that can be closed through.


I think it could be closed someday, but why would we close that? Like, I think it's so boring to think about recreating things that we already have when we could when we could create something that's different.


I know you're thinking about the people who don't have a husband and what can we give them?


Yeah, but I guess what I'm getting at is. Maybe not so like the movie her. Yeah, right, so. A better husband, well, maybe better in some ways, like it's I do think that robots are going to continue to be a different type of relationship, even if we get them like very human looking or when, you know, the voice interactions we have with them feel very like natural and human, like, I think there's still going to be differences.


And there were in that movie, too, like towards the end, guy goes off the rails is just a movie so that your intuition is. But that because because you kind of said do things right.


So one is why would you want.


To basically replicate the husband, yeah, and the other is kind of implying that it's kind of hard to do so like anytime you try, you might build something very impressive, but it'll be different.


I guess my question is about human nature is how hard is it to satisfy that role of the husband?


So removing any of the sexual stuff aside is the is more like the mystery, the tension, the dance of relationships.


You think with robots, that's difficult to build listening to. I think that.


Well, it also depends on are we talking about robots now in 50 years in like indefinite amount of time where I'm thinking like five or ten years, five or ten years, I think that robots at best will be like a it's more similar to the relationship we have with our pets than relationship that we have with other people.


I got it.


So what do you think it takes to build a system that exhibits greater and greater levels of intelligence, like impresses us with this intelligence, you know, a Roomba. So you talk about anthropomorphised and that doesn't I think intelligence is not required.


In fact, intelligence probably gets in the way sometimes, like you mentioned, but.


What do you think it takes to create a system where we sense that it has a human level intelligence is something that probably something conversational human level, how hard do you think that problem is? It'd be interesting to hear your perspective.


Not just purely to talk to a lot of people. How hard is the conversation with agents? Yeah, how hard is it to pass the Turing test?


But my sense is it's it's easier than just solving it's easier than solving the pure and natural language processing problem, because I feel like you can cheat.


Yeah. So, yeah, so how how hard is it to pass the Turing test, in your view? Well, I think, again, it's all about expectation management. If you set up people's expectations to think that they're communicating with what was it, a 13 year old boy from the Ukraine? That's right. And then they're not going to expect perfect English. They're not going to expect perfect understanding of concepts or even like being on the same wavelength in terms of like conversation flow.


So it's much easier to pass in that case. Do you think? You kind of alluded this to with audio. Do you think it needs to have a body? I think that we definitely have so we treat physical things with more social agency because we're very physical creatures, I think a body can be useful.


Does it get in the way, is there a negative aspects like, yeah, there can be. So if you're trying to create a body that's too similar to something that people are familiar with, like I have this robot cat at home that Hasbro makes and it's very disturbing to watch because I'm constantly assuming that it's going to move like a real cat and it doesn't because it's like a one hundred dollar piece of technology.


So it's very disappointing and it's very hard to treat it like it's alive. So you can get a lot wrong with the body, too.


But you can also use tricks, same as, you know, the expectation management of the 13 year old boy from the Ukraine.


If you pick an animal that people aren't intimately familiar with, like the baby dinosaur, like the BBC, all that people have never actually held in their arms, you can get away with much more because they don't have these preformed expectations.


Yeah, no. You having a TED talk or something that clicked for me that nobody actually knows what a dinosaur looks like. So you can actually get away with a lot more.


That was great. Do you think he needs. So what do you think about consciousness and mortality being displayed in the robot? So not actually. Having consciousness, but having these kind of human elements that are much more than just the interaction, much more than just like you mentioned, with a dinosaur moving kind of in interesting ways, but really being worried about its own death and really acting as if it's aware and self-aware and identity. Have you seen that done in robotics?


Would you think about doing that?


Is that a is that a powerful good thing?


Well, it's a I think it can be a design tool that you can use for different purposes. So I can't say whether it's inherently good or bad, but I do think it can be a powerful tool.


The fact that the, you know, PLEO mimics distress when you quote unquote hurt it is is a really powerful tool to get people to engage with it in a certain way.


I had a research partner that I did some of the empathy work with Nandy, and he had built a robot for himself that had like a life span and that would stop working after a certain amount of time just because he was interested in, like, whether he himself would treat it differently.


And we know from, you know, Tamagotchi those like those little games that that we used to have that were extremely primitive, that like people respond to like this idea of mortality.


And, you know, you can get people to do a lot with a little design tricks like that. Now, whether it's a good thing depends on what you're trying to get them to do. Have a deeper relationship, have a deeper connection, so a relationship if it's for their own benefit. That sounds great.


OK, well, you see, you do that for a lot of other reasons. I see. So what kind of stuff are you worried about, though? Is it mostly about manipulation of your emotions for like advertising and so on? Things like that? Yeah. Or data collection or I mean, you could think of governments misusing this to extract information from people.


It's, you know, just just like any other technological tool just raises a lot of questions.


What if you if you look at Facebook, if you look at Twitter and social networks, there's a lot of concern of data collection.


Now, what's from the legal perspective or in general, how do we prevent the violation of sort of these companies crossing a line?


It's a gray area, but crossing a line they shouldn't in terms of manipulating, like we're talking about manipulating our emotion, manipulating our behavior, using tactics that are not so savory.


Yeah, it's it's really difficult because. We are starting to create technology that relies on data collection to provide functionality, and there's not a lot of incentive, even on the consumer side, to curb that, because the other problem is that the harms aren't tangible. They're not really apparent to a lot of people because they kind of trickle down on a societal level.


And then suddenly we're living in like 1984, which, you know, sounds extreme. But I read that book was very prescient. And I'm not worried about, you know, these systems. You know, I I have, you know, Amazon echo at home and tell Alexa all sorts of stuff. And and it helps me because, you know, Alexa knows what brand of diaper we use and so I can just easily order it again. So I don't have any incentive to, like, ask a lawmaker to curb that.


But when I think about that data then being used against, you know, low income people to target them for, you know, scam loans or education programs, that's then a societal effect that I think is very severe.


And, you know, legislators should be thinking about the gray area is. The removing ourselves from consideration of like of explicitly defining objectives and more saying, well, we want to maximize engagement in our social network.


Yeah. And and then just because you're not actually doing a bad thing, it makes sense. You want people to to keep a conversation going, to have more conversations, to keep coming back again and again, to have conversations. And whatever happens after that, you're kind of not exactly directly responsible. You're only indirectly responsible. So I think it's a really hard problem.


Yeah, I know you are optimistic about us ever being able to solve it.


You mean the problem of capitalism? Well, it's because the problem is that the companies are acting in the companies interests and not in people's interests. And when those interests are aligned, that's great. But it's the completely free market doesn't seem to work because of this information asymmetry.


But it's hard to know how to say you try to do the right thing. I guess what I'm trying to say is it's not obvious for these companies what the good thing for society is to do.


I don't think they sit there and with I don't know, with a glass of wine and a cat like petting a cat, evil cat.


And there's two decisions. And one of them is good for society. One is good for the other for the profit. And they choose the profit.


I think they actually there's a lot of money to be made by doing the right thing for society like that, because just Google, Facebook have so much cash that they actually watch, especially Facebook will significantly benefit from making decisions that are good for society.


It's good for their brand. Right.


So but I don't know if they know what society that's the we I don't think we know what's good for society in terms of how.




How we manage the conversation on Twitter or how we design the we're talking about robots like should it should we emotionally manipulate you into having a deep connection with Alexa or not?


Yeah, yeah, yeah. We do have optimism that we'll be able to solve some of these questions. Well, I'm going to say something that's controversial like in my circles, which is that I don't think that companies who are reaching out to ethicists and trying to create interdisciplinary ethics boards, I don't think that that's totally just trying to whitewash the problem and and so that they look like they've done something. I think that a lot of companies actually do, like you say, care about what the right answer is.


They don't know what that is and they're trying to find people to help them find them. Not in every case.


But I think I you know, it's much too easy to just vilify the companies as like you said, sitting there with their cat going for one million dollars.


That's not what happens. A lot of people are well-meaning, even within companies.


Um, I think that what we do absolutely need is more interdisciplinarity, both within companies, but also within the policymaking space, because we're you know, we've hurtled into the world where technological progress is much faster.


It seems much faster than it was. And things are getting very complex.


And you need people who understand the technology, but also people who understand what the societal implications are and people who are thinking about this in a more systematic way to be talking to each other. There's no other solution. I think you've also done work on intellectual property.


So if you look at the algorithms of these companies are using like YouTube, Twitter or Facebook, so on. I mean, that's kind of those are mostly secretive, the recommender systems behind behind this album. Do you think about it, IP and the transparency of algorithms like this? Like what? The responsibility of these companies to open source the algorithms or at least reveal to the public what how these algorithms work?


So I personally don't work on that. There are a lot of people who do, though, and there are a lot of people calling for transparency. In fact, Europe's even trying to legislate transparency. Maybe they even have at this point where, like if if an algorithmic system makes some sort of decision that affects someone's life, that you need to be able to see how that decision was made.


I you know, it's it's a it's a tricky balance because obviously companies need to have, you know, some sort of competitive advantage and you can't take all that away or you stifle innovation. But, yeah, for some of the ways that these systems are already being used, I think. It is pretty important that people understand how they work.


What are your thoughts in general on intellectual property in this weird age of software, AI robotics?


Oh, that is broken. I mean, the system is just broken. So can you describe.


Actually, I don't even know what intellectual property is in the space of software, what it means to mean.


So I believe I have a patent on a piece of software from my Ph.D..


You believe you don't know we went through a whole process. Yeah, I, I do get the spam emails like. Well, from your patent for you. Yes.


Much like a thesis. So but that's useless, right. Or not. Where does it stand in this age. What, what is, what's the right way to do it. What's the right way to protect and own ideas when it's just code and and this mishmash of something that feels much softer than a piece of machinery? Yeah, yeah.


I mean, it's hard because, you know, there are different types of intellectual property in there, kind of these blunt instruments. They're like it's like patent law is like a wrench, like it works really well for an industry like the pharmaceutical industry.


But when you try and apply it to something else, it's like, I don't know, I'll just like hit this thing with the wrench and hope it works.


So software, you know, software, you have a couple of different options. Software I like any code that's written down in some tangible form is automatically copyrighted. So you have that protection. But that doesn't do much because if someone takes the basic idea that the code is executing and just does it in a slightly different way, they can get around the copyright. So there's not a lot of protection then you can patent software. But that's I mean. Getting a patent costs, I don't know if you remember what year cost or was it an institution?


Yes, it's a university. Yeah, they it was insane. There were so many lawyers, so many meetings. And it made me feel like it must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was crazy. It's it's insane the cost of getting a patent. And so this idea of like protecting the, like, inventor in their own garage came up with great ideas.


Kind of that's the thing of the past. It's all just companies trying to protect things and it costs a lot of money. And then with code, it's oftentimes like, you know, by the time the patent is issued, which can take like five years, you know, probably your code is obsolete at that point.


So it's it's a very again, a very blunt instrument that doesn't work well for that industry. And so, you know, at this point, we should really have something better. But we don't do, like, opensource. Yeah, it's almost as good for society. I think all of us should open source code.


Well, so at the Media Lab at MIT, we have an open source default, because what we've noticed is that people will come in, they'll write some code and they'll be like, how do I protect this? And we're like, that's not your problem right now. Your problem, isn't it? Someone's going to steal your project. Your problem is getting people to use it at all. Right?


Like there's so much stuff out there, like we don't even know if you're going to get traction for your work. And so open sourcing can sometimes help, you know, get people's work out there, but ensure that they get attribution for it, for the work that they've done. So I'm a fan of it in a lot of contexts. Obviously, it's not like a one size fits all solution.


So what I glean from your Twitter is your mom I saw a quote, a reference to baby bot. What have you learned about robotics and A.I. from raising a human baby? But.


Well, I think that my child has made it more apparent to me that the systems we're currently creating aren't like human intelligence, there's not a lot to compare there.


It's just he he has learned and developed in such a different way than a lot of the A.I. systems we're creating that. That's not really interesting to me to compare. But what is interesting to me is how these systems are going to shape the world that he grows up in. And so I'm like even more concerned about kind of the societal effects of developing systems that rely on massive amounts of data collection, for example.


So as you're going to be allowed to use like Facebook or Facebook, it's over.


Kids don't use that Snapchat or do they use Instagram shots over to I don't know, I just read that tick tock is over, which I've never even seen. So I don't know.


I know we're old, we don't know Twitter, and we just I'm going to start gaming and streaming my my gameplay. So what do you see as the future of.


Personal robotics, social robotics, interaction with the robots, like, what are you excited about, if you were to sort of philosophize about what might happen the next five, 10 years, that would be cool to see.


Oh, I really hope that we get kind of a home robot that makes it that the social robot and not just elect the like. It's you know, I really love the products. I thought Giba was had some really great aspects.


So I'm hoping that a company crack's that made you so OK. It was wonderful talking to you today. Like, thank you so much.


It's fun. Thanks for listening to this conversation with Kate, darling, and thank you to our sponsors, Expressible and Masterclass. Please consider supporting the podcast by signing up to Master Class, a master class that works and getting Express VPN and Express VPN dot com slash leks pod. If you enjoy this podcast, subscribe on YouTube. Review five stars and a podcast supporter on Patrón or simply connect with me on Twitter. Àlex Friedemann. And now let me leave you with some tweets from Kate, darling, first tweet as the pandemic has fundamentally changed who I am.


I now drink the leftover milk in the bottom of the cereal bowl, second tweet is I came on here to complain that I had a really bad day and saw that a bunch of you are hurting to love to everyone. Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.