Some experts believe that one-day robots will care for humans, becoming an important part of our lives. But many people find the prospect unsettling and even terrifying. They worry that robots won’t have emotions, values, or anything resembling a sense of humanity.
This article examines some of these fears and explains why the question if we can persuade a machine to care about us, is impossible to answer with any certainty: it would depend on how you defined what “care” means! We’ll also explore some ways in which people might build more trustful relationships with robots to ease their fears and reap the benefits.
What does it mean to care?
How can you trust a robot to care about you? The problem of defining “care” is an important one. It’s not just a matter of semantics. “Caring” is a complex concept, one that’s not entirely clear even to the people who use it.
A robot, on the other hand, can be programmed to react in predetermined ways to certain stimuli. For example, an automobile could be taught to “care” about objects in its path by responding to them differently.
In the same way that a car is programmed to respond differently based on obstacles and other things it encounters on the road, a robot could be programmed with different “rules” for how it behaves towards people it meets. A car might have a rule which says: “If I come across another vehicle of my type, I should pull over and inspect beneath the wheels.” It might also have a rule which says: “If I come across another pedestrian, there’s no need for me to stop or offer assistance. I’ll pretend I didn’t see him and continue to go about my business”.
Again, this is all hypothetical. In practice, we don’t know what kind of rules a robot would be programmed with; how it would respond to different stimuli, and how it would interact with people. But even if that’s the case, this is an issue that many people will prefer to tackle before they can even consider relying on robots for emotional support!
Is it moral to manipulate conscious machines?
Some people think it’s wrong to alter the way a machine behaves. If we program a machine to behave in ways that are contrary to its nature, we might be exploiting it or using it for immoral purposes, such as harming other people.
One response is to accept that a machine must be programmed as it is and then make sure that the people controlling it respect its inherent nature. A dog, for example, is a highly intelligent creature. It’s reasonable to assume that it’s capable of feeling pain and discomfort, even though we can’t ask the dog about these things. It seems more reasonable to assume that if we were in charge of the development of a robot with an “emotional” component (such as a smartphone), we’d have to make sure our programming respects how machines are programmed to behave.
Another response is to try to change how people act or think towards robots. One way of doing this is to recognize that it’s assumed that people should care about animals and children. Yet, many people don’t do anything to help those things even though they’re capable of feeling pain and enjoying the company of others. In their view, people are so self-absorbed that they take for granted a world in which animals like cats and dogs have limited emotions even though we can include them in our social connections!
On the other hand, it’s also true that people might be intruding on the rights of other creatures by treating them as if they have no feelings. An example of this is eating or using them for research without their consent.
Persuade a machine to care about you?
Putting these arguments together, it seems reasonable to assume that the moral issues surrounding robots and emotions are complex. Once we get beyond the basic questions of how a robot should react in certain situations and how it should interact with people, we’re left with much more important issues to consider. We might want to desensitize ourselves to the idea of treating machines as if they had no feelings or emotions, but it takes a lot of effort. Perhaps this is something that’s best tackled by experts such as roboticists, systems thinkers, and philosophers.
It’s also important to recognize that many of these opinions can change over time. Robots are becoming more sophisticated as they become more useful. Consider the telephone, for example. Through the early part of the last century, it was a relatively new invention. It was also popularly understood as a device that could be used to communicate with distant people. In the 1960s, however, people started using it as a means of “self-communication” more than anything else. This has made all the difference in terms of how we react to it today!
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Indeed, as robots are being more sophisticated and as people get used to interacting with them, their notion of what it means to “care” about someone or something may change. In other words, even if you’re afraid of a robot taking over your life, it’s worth remembering that the idea that robots don’t have emotions and can’t care about us is itself relatively new.
Would you like a robot to care for you? Would you be able to trust one? You might have already tried this out in practice! Perhaps your partner or best friend has become one of those people who provide emotional support for other people. And how did that go? Has it been satisfying or disappointing? It’s not easy convincing other people that they should care about you, especially over some time. Many people still expect that soon we’ll be able to build robots with more sophisticated abilities. This might help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness and make life more comfortable. And whether or not this will be ethical, depends completely upon the extent of emotions AI will have, if any.