Could You Kill A Robot With Human Characteristics?

If you spent some time with a robot with human characteristics, could you shut it off and permanently disable it? Christoph Bartneck, a robotics professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, staged an experiment to find out if people can do it.


(Bartneck study video)

In Bartneck's study, the robot — an expressive cat that talks like a human — sits side by side with the human research subject, and together they play a game against a computer. Half the time, the cat robot was intelligent and helpful, half the time not.Bartneck also varied how socially skilled the cat robot was. "So, if the robot would be agreeable, the robot would ask, 'Oh, could I possibly make a suggestion now?' If it were not, it would say, 'It's my turn now. Do this!' "

At the end of the game, whether the robot was smart or dumb, nice or mean, a scientist authority figure modeled on Milgram's would make clear that the human needed to turn the cat robot off, and it was also made clear to them what the consequences of that would be: "They would essentially eliminate everything that the robot was — all of its memories, all of its behavior, all of its personality would be gone forever."

In videos of the experiment, you can clearly see a moral struggle as the research subject deals with the pleas of the machine. "You are not really going to switch me off, are you?" the cat robot begs, and the humans sit, confused and hesitating. "Yes. No. I will switch you off!" one female research subject says, and then doesn't switch the robot off."

People started to have dialogues with the robot about this," Bartneck says, "Saying, 'No! I really have to do it now, I'm sorry! But it has to be done!' But then they still wouldn't do it."

There they sat, in front of a machine no more soulful than a hair dryer, a machine they knew intellectually was just a collection of electrical pulses and metal, and yet they paused.

And while eventually every participant killed the robot, it took them time to intellectually override their emotional queasiness — in the case of a helpful cat robot, around 35 seconds before they were able to complete the switching-off procedure. How long does it take you to switch off your stereo?

Science fiction fans have witnessed this struggle on a variety of occasions, but only in fiction. For example, you probably remember the penultimate scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which Dave Bowman shuts off the HAL 9000 computer.


('Would you like me to sing it for you, Dave?')

What are your favorite (or most difficult to watch) scenes of a person who choses to kill a humanoid robot or machine?

Via NPR; also, read more about Chrisoph Bartneck.'

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