Back to the future? Love and robots: Professor Neil Frude recycled.
A pub talk during Covid lockdown not an oxymoron thanks to modern technology as London OUPS presented a talk by Prof Neil Frude, a technology virtually unthought of when Prof Neil published ‘The Intimate Machine in 1983. Inspired he said by research sponsored by Pedigree Petfood’s regarding the benefits of budgerigar ownership and an article in computer magazine about artificial speech. Love and robots a natural follow up perhaps to the November offering by Professor Emily Cross “From Social Cognition to Social Robot
I must say the video/ zoom style platforms allow insight beyond the body language of the presenter, a glimpse generally into their homes. Prof Neil didn’t disappoint, the books on his Billy bookcases in clear focus: Pinker, Understanding family problems, Frude and more Frude , ‘Bolivian diary’ and Che Guevara, at least 4 copies of "The intimate machine" and 2 of the follow up "Robot Heritage". David Byrne the LOUPS host also had the full Billy but no insight as the titles were out of focus.
What is disappointing is that the screen settings chosen didn’t show a list of delegates and in the comments box many of the usual suspects were either absent or opted not to reveal themselves.
Speakers often incorporate videos into their talks, Prof Neil turned that idea on its head and presented the bulk of his presentation as a video of him giving a talk, a neat bit of recycling. In some ways I think we did better than the original audience (of computer types) as we got an intro and an outro too! Prof Neil is an engaging speaker and, in this case, used few slides, in some ways I found it easier to pay attention by listening rather than reading. Prof Neil has also appeared at the Edinburgh fringe with a stand-up comedy show billed as “award-winning psychologist who stimulated the Sun headline 'Boffin says we will bonk with robots'”!
Technology has moved on considerably since Prof Neil’s original book, artificial intelligence being very real now, a form of animism giving ‘soul’ to artificial objects. To the background picture of a milking stool, he suggested the legs of technology and animism are in place all that is missing for a big boost to ‘companion’ robotics is the third leg of commercial development, he further suggested we don’t need perfection arguing that people are already ‘wowed’ by the products.
Cuddly sensory toys are already being trialled for dementia patients in South Wales, I found the image used took me back to Harry Harlow’s experiments, generating a certain pathos as I thought of my late mother. These toys are currently devoid of speech. Pepper the robot from Japan is less sensory but is focussed upon emotion and conversation. Prof Neil suggested a humanisation of domestic appliances citing the example of Henry the vac, he said nothing of the many cases presented at A&E of vacuum cleaner ‘injuries’.
Smart speakers already blend themselves to their user, capable of suggesting, through an artificial emotional intelligence, music to fit the mood. Providing too elements of conversation, not so new perhaps, I recall my mother replying to her satellite navigator (she was in her late 80’s).
In this Brave New World, it will be survival of the fittest as the machines evolve, Prof Neil, positive as ever, expects them to be programmed with good traits, those of honesty, loyalty and comfort. They will provide companionship along with conversation possibly with adjustable extroversion or introversion but with desirability as standard. These machines to become one’s best friend and he argued giving companionship which most raises happiness.
As for bonking with robots he rabbited on about certain devices being better than men, that sex machines had great erotic potential and product evolution is making the products seem real. He suggested such machines could also have a platonic setting! He didn’t mention teledildonics and with no bar session afterwards there wasn’t the opportunity to discuss that over a drink.
Perhaps the most alarming or most exciting prediction was that machines would become better than humans, a 3-armed robotic masseur for example or highly compassionate robotic physicians?
As major investment is made, we are moving headlong into a world where reality is being overtaken by artificial, a virtual world with virtual people?
Perhaps the Covid crisis is speeding up the process as we attend virtual conferences such as this, have zoom meetings rather than face to face, work remotely rather than attending the office? Many it seems prefer such interaction to the fag of real life encounters.
In conclusion I’m drawn back to the Graham Mitchel Memorial Lecture of 2020 delivered by Prof Toates. At that talk Prof Neil suggested it was OK to covet your neighbour’s wife as long as adultery didn’t occur, I wonder what is the morality of bonking one’s neighbour’s robot?
Great talk, thanks Prof Neil and LOUPS let’s hope it’ll not be too long until we can be F2F rather than virtual.