Together in electric dreams: competing visions of the robotic future

Depending on your assumptions, the rise of the robots could be either liberating or unnerving. But how can we navigate our interactions with artificial helpers?

Patrick Stewart, left, and Brent Spiner as Captain Jean Luc-Picard and Data the android from Star Trek. Courtesy Paramount
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Whether you’re looking forward to a brave new world where robots are part of everyday life, or whether you’re suspicious of technological advancements, a lot depends on which pop-cultural reference they invoke.

For some people, it's Lieutenant Commander Data, the android striving to achieve human sentience in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Rosie, the Jetsons' robotic maid. For others, it's the Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But whether one envisages Star Trek or Skynet, we're on the cusp of an era when the latest robots will make their forerunners seem as antiquated as a horse and cart.

This is where the NYU Abu Dhabi researcher Susanne Quadflieg comes in. Her work through the university’s Person Perception and Person Knowledge Laboratory usually deals with how we make sense of the people around us.

It’s long been known that the human mind is quick to evaluate other people’s apparent emotions, intentions and personalities. “To make these quick judgments, your brain makes constant predictions about what’s going on,” she says. “It tries to foresee what others are likely to do or to say using experiences from the past. But sometimes these predictions go wrong.”

It’s these unexpected moments and the challenges they bring that Quadflieg tries to capture. To study them, she watches the reactions of everyday people when shown both common and unusual interactions.

“Imagine you see two men approaching each other, making eye contact and with their right hands extended. You immediately understand what is going on and expect them to greet each other.”

Change that predictable pattern – such as two people extending hands in greeting but one of whom is facing away from the other – and the mind struggles. That’s good, because it means we’re reacting to what is actually happening rather than what we expected to happen, albeit at the cost of a slightly slower mental process.

This is Quadflieg’s area of research – exploring the cues and distractions of this decision-making process and interpreting the reasons why.

One reason Abu Dhabi is a good base for her studies is because people from different cultural backgrounds tend to bring very different expectations to social situations. What some people might perceive as normal behaviour is highly unusual in the eyes of others, such as the way male friends will hold hands in some cultures, something restricted to romantic couples in the West.

So where do the robots come in?

It turns out that one of Quadflieg’s variations in her research on everyday interactions are scenarios where only one of those involved turns out to be human.

“I’m interested in how we see the interaction between humans and robots,” she explains.

“The abilities robots are endowed with are changing quickly.

“Robots began as machines mainly made for manufacturing, but they are increasingly becoming companions supporting us in everyday life. Whether this is a welcome development is less certain.

“In the 1970s, Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori observed that while people tended to be largely excited and positive about the possibility of robots, they can also feel eerie about them.”

Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the sudden dip in comfort levels that occurred when robots looked particularly human-like. This was not so pronounced if the robot looked more industrial or if it performed tasks not seen as requiring emotions. But it is not just what robots look like that determines how we feel about them.

“Our feelings really depend on what we expect the robot to be capable of doing,” she says. “It’s like someone giving you a tissue when you’re crying. How do we respond if it’s a robot offering the tissue?

“Some people think it’s cool. Others are freaked out about it. Those are the different types of attitudes.”

To test that theory, Quadflieg looks at what type of robot interactions are considered valuable. She finds that robots who assist in specific tasks such as wiping a floor, carrying a box or watering plants are generally well received. People tend to be less happy, however, with robots acting as social companions or friends.

“When we show our participants robots who ask for a dance or offer a hug, many report a feeling of uneasiness.

“Could you have a friendship with a machine? It’s a philosophical question,” she adds. What remains certain is that some of us are not too keen on the option.

“At this point in time, many people would be worried if we were able to produce robots that have feelings. In so many contemporary movies, that’s the discussion: can a robot have feelings?”

However, one of the areas in which robots are predicted to increase their use in everyday life is in providing care, particularly as the population ages. For some, this is a challenging prospect, especially since the group least likely to welcome that prospect is also the group most likely to experience it. “Our data indicates that the older the person, the less amenable they are to the prospect of accepting a robot in a position of care.” But will it be different when today’s youth reaches an age where they need support robots?

People from cultures such as Japan in which robots are featured widely in books and movies seem more willing to accept robots in these roles. This trend is likely to turn into a worldwide phenomenon.

So what will life be like 20 years from now? The closest analogy Quadflieg can make to the envisaged future integration of robots into everyday life is what it would have been like explaining to someone in the early 1990s what life will be like in the internet era.

“Maybe people will think about robots in the future the way we think about the internet now. That it’s just normal. How could it ever have been a big deal?”

Glimpses of that future continue to emerge, including at venues such as the Idex international arms exhibition in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. Military and academic organisations have long been the twin pillars of robotic development, although it was a lot more of the former at Idex than the latter.

The Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner that will clean the floor and then dock itself back into the charging bay afterwards, is still deemed futuristic by many, but has been around for more than a decade. Its parent company, iRobot, was an exhibitor at Idex, although the products it was selling were highly unlikely to leave your floor cleaner than before.

Google has also been trialling driverless cars in the United States. But how would drivers on Sheikh Zayed Road react if one of these vehicles began to express human emotions by flashing its lights as it sped down the motorway?

If you want to participate in NYU Abu Dhabi's person and robot perception research, visit

John Henzell is a senior features writer for The National.