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Tech’s Ethics: Androids

Published 09/16/2019

Androids. The subject of so many science fiction novels and films. Some are sympathetic heroes, some are humanity destroying monsters. (Sometimes they’re even both.) But what do androids mean for humans? What effect do they have on the growth of emotional intelligence and the ability for humans to interact? As we grant more and more responsibility to androids, do we risk losing that essential human connection that is so important to us? Or is that connection so important to us after all?

And, most importantly, do they dream of electric sheep?

Robot Companions

Companion robots are becoming increasingly prevalent in society. Robots like Kuri provide users with seemingly direct contact. (Whether this contact is reciprocal in nature or not is obviously up for debate.) What’s the good news with companion robots?

Well, companion robots do provide therapeutic benefits for lonely people. Chronically lonely populations like the elderly can find great comfort in a companion robot. Think of the movie “Robot & Frank” where an aging cat burglar befriends a helper bot and sees a surge in happiness levels. His memory even starts coming back!

And the elderly may very well need these companion bots because the standard outlets for human connection – namely, family – are rapidly disappearing. Folks just simply aren’t having as many kids these days (or any kids for that matter). Whether it’s Japan, where the average number of people living in a home fell below 2 for the first time in 2012 (read: more single, childless homes than ever) or the European Union where every single member country has a sub-replacement fertility rate, people just aren’t having babies. And elderly individuals with no family or children need some sort of outlet to cure their crippling loneliness.

And there are plenty of lonely people. There are so many lonely people in London, for example, that the mayor appointed a “minister of loneliness” in 2018. In the United States, the problem of loneliness has been described as an “epidemic”. And in Japan, again, living alone will be the norm by 2020, which is unheard of in a developed nation.

But are androids a good solution to loneliness? It’s probably better than nothing, but what about solutions that involve other humans? Perhaps there could be a push to provide more counselors and caretakers for the elderly. Perhaps the stigma of nursing homes could be erased so that the elderly could live out their days in a real community with real people. Or, perhaps, we could simply encourage people to get married and have children again so that that natural long-term source of love and support could be there as we age.

Humans need humans, and while companion robots can certainly provide a valuable service to the most lonely among our population, we can’t completely devalue human-to-human interaction. That’s part of what makes us human, after all.

Virtual Girlfriends

It’s not just the lack of human interaction with regards to aging that’s a problem, however. The trend often starts much earlier as another major life stage sees the replacement of a human counterpart with that of an android.

Virtual girlfriends are one of the most rapidly increasing sectors of the android industry. The forerunner of this technology is, as per usual, Japan. “Azuma Hikari”, a holographic girl in a tube, provides companionship for chronically single, lonely men. (Whether these men would be chronically single and lonely if they actually interacted with other women is obviously up for debate.) The android will welcome their man home, send them messages throughout the day, and even perform dances and sing their favorite songs. Much like the holographic girlfriend in “Blade Runner 2049” or the AI girlfriend in “Her”, Azuma Hikari provides all the companionship most lonely men think they need.

And there are several other implementations of virtual girlfriends available. Some services offer only communication – seeing how your day is going, sending you little love notes. Some services blend AI personal assistant functionality with communication – “How was your day? Can I order you a coffee from your favorite shop?” And with the advent of sex dolls, some services even go well beyond that.

And yet, one wonders what effect these androids have on the (mostly) men who use them. Are they chronically alone because they’re losing the ability to interact with other people because they only ever interact with perfectly agreeable, never confrontational androids? And maybe that’s all people need, perfectly subservient partners who never challenge them, but that doesn’t seem right.

Again, humans need humans. We have millions of years of interpersonal communication genes built into us that we disregard at our peril. Shouldn’t there be a solution that gets lonely people talking to each other as opposed to talking to a virtual girlfriend? If we ignore the complexity of other humans and talk only with simple androids, aren’t we losing one of the most beautiful aspects of humanity?

Hologram Celebrities

There’s another aspect of human-to-human interaction being replaced by androids, and that’s celebrities themselves. Humans idolize those higher up the food chain – this goes all the way back to our primate ancestors. There are very real physical reactions to seeing a picture of a celebrity, for example. But now we’re even moving past human celebrities.

“Hatsune Miku” is a digital hologram who performs original songs (often composed by fans) and does elaborately choreographed dances. Her fans are legion, numbering in the tens of millions. Her shows routinely sell out and her audiences themselves have various fan chants and pre-choreographed movements to go along with her songs. And she’s not real.

And it’s not just fake holograms who are lighting up the state. Dead musicians have been surprisingly active as of late. Roy Orbison performed several sold-out shows in Los Angeles. Tupac made a surprise appearance at Coachella. Billie Holiday, who’s been dead for 60 years, is all of a sudden performing gigs again. And until very recently Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011, was scheduled for a worldwide 2019 tour. Holograms are one of the hottest tickets in town.

Actors are coming back too for beyond-the-grave performances. Peter Cushing made an appearance in the Star Wars film “Rogue One” about twenty years postmortem. Carrie Fisher will likely make a similar appearance in “The Rise of Skywalker” three years after her death. And who’s to say actors won’t just be holograms in the future? It would certainly be cheaper. And they would be much better workers – never tired, never sick, never throwing tantrums on set.

Supermodels too are going the way of holograms. A model names Lil Miquela has almost 2 million followers on Instagram despite being a wholly invented hologram. She’s worked with everyone from Prada to Calvin Klein and has done numerous “interviews” with outlets like Vogue and the BBC. Even video game characters are becoming supermodels now. Lightning, a character from the Final Fantasy XIII series, has become a fashion icon as well.

Is this the future for celebrities? Surely, it would be a lot easier for the production companies if they could work with fully compliant performers. But do humans need other humans to aspire to? It seems likely that the replacement of all human performers by hologram counterparts would represent a tremendous loss of human artistry and creativity.

Conclusion

These days we seemingly can’t get rid of humans fast enough. There is something of a sea change going on in popular opinion with the rise of human replacements for seemingly human activities. Whether it’s caring for an aging, lonely person or providing support for a significant other or even starring in a movie or performing in a concert, humans seem increasingly willing to let androids do that kind of stuff.

But isn’t that kind of stuff what makes us human? Our compassion and the love we give to another and our seemingly boundless potential for artistic creativity? We probably abandon those human characteristics at our peril. Without those, the responsibilities left to us would be very small and very cold. Almost like we would turn ourselves into simplistic androids ourselves.