Three years ago, the University of Oxford predicted that 47% of U.S. jobs could be made obsolete by new technology, namely automation. Now, we find ourselves on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Thanks to rapid developments in artificial intelligence and robotics, machines are being increasingly integrated into our daily lives. If this fills you with fear, you’re not alone.

Westworld, I, Robot, and Her have filled our minds with haunting depictions of machines gone mad. These on-screen realities force us to imagine robot vs. human wars and moral dilemmas. Everything we thought we knew about being human needs reconsideration.

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Up to 47% of jobs could soon be made obsolete by new technology, especially by #robotsClick To Tweet  

I’m sure people felt equally anxious during the first Industrial Revolution.

However, there was probably also a sense of intrigue–an intense need to go beyond the known. This feeling is all too familiar to us today. These same attitudes of intrigue and fear coexist within us.

But, it’s too late for us to be afraid.

Robots have been around for a while, lurking behind the scenes. Only now they are emerging all around us. In hospitals, robots have been developed to help dementia patients, in homes, the Roomba vacuum cleaner is often named like a pet. There are highly efficient robotic weight loss coaches and robots who teach children how to read.

In a world of drone deliveries and sushi-making robots, we no longer have to interact with other humans. If we so wish, we can get groceries or go to the bank without ever even looking anyone in the eyes. Soon, the embarrassment of answering the door, pajama-clad, worried about tipping the pizza delivery guy, will be a distant memory.

A recent collaboration between Ford and Domino’s Pizza experimented with this idea. Self-driving cars replaced the typical human delivery service. Among other things, this simple experiment revealed something extremely interesting: most customers felt the need to thank the vehicle.

If you apologize to the couch you just bumped into, this may not shock you. We’ve all done it. The words slip out before logic kicks in. Yes, we know that it’s an inanimate object and no, we aren’t going insane.

The fact that Jim Farley, Ford’s executive vice president, remarked that this was a very ‘human reaction’ is thought-provoking. Whether manners are simply a habit, ingrained from childhood, or are proof of an innate sense of human morality their implications run deeper.

Robot with love hearts for eyes
Aeolus Robotics

Why do Manners Matter?

With today’s demand for everything to be instantaneous, are social airs and graces merely a waste of valuable time? They not only reflect the ever-changing world we live in (digital etiquette handbook anyone?) but also serve to harness respect, enhance human dignity, and allow for civilized interaction. In fact, politeness is linked to the same brain systems that govern aggression.

A third, less obvious impact of manners is an ease managing with social situations instilled in the person who acts in accordance with them. Etiquette not only provides people with a sense of confidence but it also reinforces a positive judgment of the self. Therefore, manners benefit both the giver and the receiver.

Put simply, being polite to others is a display of empathy that everyone we interact with deserves. It shows you have regard for the feelings of others. The ability to feel empathy stems from the ability to feel emotions. In the face of automation, this is complicated by the fact robots and machines are becoming more and more humane.

Should they receive the same treatment? “No” the logical brain definitively states. The ATM isn’t going to be offended if I don’t greet it with a smile. Yet, I find myself feeling a little ashamed when I demand Siri to find information for me instead of asking nicely. However, this is not always the case.

Japanese Children Physically Abuse Innocent Robot

A study carried out in by Japanese researchers from Osaka University saw a remotely controlled robot, called Robovie 2 patrol a public shopping mall. Robovie 2 was able to politely ask any human that got in his way to move aside. If they refused, he would simply go the other way.

What they discovered would lose anyone a little bit of their faith in humanity. The study revealed that unsupervised groups of young children would persist to intentionally obstruct Robovie 2. Not only that, but, disturbingly, often the children would eagerly abuse the innocent robot. This would quickly escalate from obstruction to verbal abuse to physically harming the robot.

Robot picking up groceries
Robovie 2 at work| Fiscal Times

This robot bullying scenario provoked the researchers to come up with an abuse evading algorithm. This meant Robovie 2 could avoid anyone under a certain height, saving him from the wrath of the little monsters.

This example of human mistreatment of robots does not stand alone. In 2014, HitchBOT, a hitchhiking robot, made his way across Canada relying completely on the kindness of strangers. When he got to the United States the internationally broadcast journey of HitchBot was put to an abrupt end. In Philadelphia, the robot was damaged beyond repair by vandals.

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This provoked an emotional response on behalf of the public. After Hitchbot met its unfortunate fate, thousands took to Twitter apologizing for the behavior of their fellow human beings and sympathizing directly with the robot.

Kate Darling, an MIT robot ethicist, carried out an experiment that examined human reactions to robots in a more in-depth way. After making each human test subject undergo an empathy test, she used Hexbugs to test their reactions. Hexbugs are cuter and more colorful than their cockroach shape would lead you to imagine.

The robotic bugs were introduced with human attributes, in the form of a backstory, name, and favorite color. Then, Darling allowed the test subject to interact with the Hexbugs. After this bonding had taken place humans were instructed to smash the Hexbugs with a mallet.

Unsurprisingly, those who had shown higher empathetic tendencies found it harder to destroy the robots. Some people even refused. This examination of human’s relationship with bots was not so much to demonstrate the human tendency to anthropomorphize. Instead, this highlights the potential of emotionally relating to inanimate objects. This, in turn, could be used to harness empathy.

Kate Darling explains that the danger doesn’t lie in what machine abuse might cause the robots to do. Rather the impact it will have on human behavior is what is dangerous.

She explains that robo-ethics is more about “human relationships with each other” and how robots could be used to improve human relations. Could what we know about our human reaction to robots be used to teach people to be more empathetic?

Should we be Polite to Humanoids and Emotional Robots?

Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have names and human voices. Naturally, we talk to them like human beings despite knowing that software forms their words. Siri and Alexa are only the start. Robots are already being built to have the brain mechanisms that produce emotions.

Discoveries in the way neural networks function have led to the creation of counter chips that can mimic the human brain. For example, the Japanese company Softbank Robotics has created Pepper, who they describe as a “humanoid” claiming to be “an emotional robot”. Or take Sophia of Hanson Robotics, a robot who was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship and capable of facial recognition and can express emotional responses.

Don’t worry Wall-E, it looks like you’ll be invented soon enough | Pixar.wikia

This humanization of robots also brings to light the question of robo-ethics. Should artificially intelligent beings have rights? Should it be their duty to serve humans just because humans created them? Should they be treated with respect and dignity? Will teaching morals to robots be as important as teaching them to a child?  

These are all questions that will need to be faced as the machine rights movement materializes.

Let’s return to the concept of manners. When it comes to upholding ethical and moral norms, manners are a core function. Could persistent violence towards robots like the misfortunate Robovie 2 or HitchBot desensitize people? Would this lead to the normalization of abusive behavior and cause humans to treat each other in the same way? This is where the real danger lies.

Our instincts to uphold common codes of conduct are important to our civilization. Do we do this to uphold good habits? Could the demanding, egocentric way we talk to automated assistants like Siri creep into our everyday language? Will we merely use robots to reinforce a sense of self-worth?

Could the Terminator-esque robot-human-war future be avoided if we afford machines rights from the very beginning?

Humans shouldn’t be worried about robots taking their jobs or robots taking over the world. But rather, as Kate Darling explains, the most urgent concern is the impact machines will have on the way humans behave in society.

Is machine rights a future problem? Are we now living in the age of robots? Or are they still relegated to the realm of toys and gimmicks?

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