Hitting the Books: The case against tomorrow’s robots looking like people


Who would not need an AI-driven robotic sidekick; a bit of mechanical pal, reliable and supportive — the good teammate. But ought to such an automaton be invented wouldn’t it actually be your teammate, an equal associate in your adventurous endeavors? Or wouldn’t it merely be a device, albeit a wildly superior one measured against as we speak’s commonplace? In the excerpt beneath from Human-Centered AI, creator and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Ben Shneiderman, examines the pitfalls of our innate want to humanize the mechanical constructs we build and the way we’re shortchanging their continued growth by doing so.

University of Oxford Press

Excerpted from Human-Centered AI by Ben Shneiderman. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2021 by Ben Shneiderman. All rights reserved.

Teammates and Tele-bots

A typical theme in designs for robots and superior applied sciences is that human–human interplay is an efficient mannequin for human–robotic interplay, and that emotional attachment to embodied robots is an asset. Many designers by no means contemplate options, believing that the means people talk with one another, coordinate actions, and type groups is the solely mannequin for design. The repeated missteps stemming from this assumption don’t deter others who consider that this time will probably be totally different, that the know-how is now extra superior, and that their strategy is novel.

Numerous psychological research by Clifford Nass and his crew at Stanford University confirmed that when computer systems are designed to be like people, customers reply and interact in socially applicable methods. Nass’s fallacy is perhaps described as this: since many people are keen to reply socially to robots, it’s applicable and fascinating to design robots to be social or human-like.

However, what Nass and colleagues didn’t contemplate was whether or not different designs, which weren’t social or human-like, would possibly result in superior efficiency. Getting past the human teammate concept could enhance the chance that designers will benefit from distinctive computer options, together with refined algorithms, enormous databases, superhuman sensors, info considerable shows, and highly effective effectors. I used to be happy to search out that in later work with grad pupil Victoria Groom, Nass wrote: “Simply put, robots fail as teammates.” They elaborated: “Characterizing robots as teammates indicates that robots are capable of fulfilling a human role and encourages humans to treat robots as human teammates. When expectations go unmet, a negative response is unavoidable.”

Lionel Robert of the University of Michigan cautions that human-like robots can result in three issues: mistaken utilization primarily based on emotional attachment to the programs, false expectations of robotic accountability, and incorrect beliefs about applicable use of robots. Still, a majority of researchers consider that robotic teammates and social robots are inevitable. That perception pervades the human–robotic interplay analysis group which “rarely conceptualized robots as tools or infrastructure and has instead theorized robots predominantly as peers, communication partners or teammates.”

Psychologist Gary Klein and his colleagues make clear ten real looking challenges to creating machines behave as successfully as human teammates. The challenges embrace making machines which might be predictable, controllable, and capable of negotiate with people about targets. The authors counsel that their challenges are supposed to stimulate analysis and in addition “as cautionary tales about the ways that technology can disrupt rather than support coordination.” An ideal teammate, buddy, assistant, or sidekick sounds interesting, however can designers ship on this picture or will customers be misled, deceived, and upset? Can customers have the management inherent in a tele-bot whereas benefiting from the helpfulness recommended by the teammate metaphor?

My objection is that human teammates, companions, and collaborators are very totally different from computer systems. Instead of those phrases, I favor to make use of tele-bots to counsel human managed units. I consider that it’s useful to do not forget that “computers are not people and people are not computers.”


Margaret Boden, a long-term researcher on creativity and AI at the University of Sussex, makes an alternate however equally robust assertion: “Robots are simply not people.” I feel the variations between people and computer systems embrace the following:

Responsibility Computers will not be accountable individuals, neither legally nor morally. They are by no means liable or accountable. They are a unique class from people. This continues to be true in all authorized programs and I feel it should stay so. Margaret Boden continues with an easy precept: “Humans, not robots, are responsible agents.” This precept is particularly true in the navy, the place chain of command and accountability are taken critically. Pilots of superior fighter jets with ample automation nonetheless consider themselves as accountable for the airplane and liable for their profitable missions, though they have to adhere to their commander’s orders and the guidelines of engagement. Astronauts rejected designs of early Mercury capsules which had no window to eyeball the re-entry in the event that they needed to do it manually — they needed to be in management when vital, but aware of Mission Control’s guidelines. Neil Armstrong landed the Lunar Module on the Moon—he was in cost, though there was ample automation. The Lunar Module was not his associate. The Mars Rovers will not be teammates; they’re superior automation with a superb integration of human tele-operation with excessive ranges of computerized operation.

It is instructive that the US Air Force shifted from utilizing the time period unmanned autonomous/aerial autos (UAVs) to remotely piloted autos (RPVs) in order to make clear accountability. Many of those pilots work from a US Air Force base in Nevada to function drones flying in distant places on navy missions that usually have lethal outcomes. They are liable for what they do and endure psychological trauma akin to what occurs to pilots flying plane in battle zones. The Canadian Government has a wealthy set of information necessities that candidates will need to have to be granted a license to function a remotely piloted plane system (RPAS).13 Designers and entrepreneurs of business services acknowledge that they and their organizations are the accountable events; they’re morally accountable and legally liable.14 Commercial exercise is additional formed by unbiased oversight mechanisms, resembling authorities regulation, business voluntary requirements, and insurance coverage necessities.

Distinctive capabilities Computers have distinctive capabilities of refined algorithms, enormous databases, superhuman sensors, information-abundant shows, and highly effective effectors. To purchase into the metaphor of “teammate” appears to encourage designers to emulate human talents fairly than benefit from the distinctive capabilities of computer systems. One robotic rescue design crew described their project to interpret the robotic’s video pictures by means of pure language textual content messages to the operators.The messages described what the robotic was “seeing” when a video or picture might ship rather more detailed info extra quickly. Why accept a human-like designs when designs that make full use of distinctive computer capabilities can be more practical.

Designers who pursue superior applied sciences can discover artistic methods to empower people in order that they’re astonishingly more practical—that’s what acquainted supertools have carried out: microscopes, telescopes, bulldozers, ships, and planes. Empowering people is what digital applied sciences have additionally carried out, by means of cameras, Google Maps, internet search, and different broadly used functions. Cameras, copy machines, vehicles, dishwashers, pacemakers, and heating, air flow, and air-con programs (HVAC) will not be normally described as teammates—they’re supertools or lively home equipment that amplify, increase empower, and improve people.

Human creativity The human operators are the artistic power — for discovery, innovation, artwork, music, and so forth. Scientific papers are all the time authored by people, even when highly effective computer systems, telescopes, and the Large Hadron Collider are used. Artworks and music compositions are credited to people, even when wealthy composition applied sciences are closely used. The human qualities resembling ardour, empathy, humility, and instinct which might be usually described in research of creativity will not be readily matched by computer systems. Another side of creativity is to present human customers of computer programs the means to repair, personalize, and lengthen the design for themselves or to offer suggestions to builders for them to make enhancements for all customers. The steady enchancment of supertools, tele-bots, and different applied sciences depends upon human enter about issues and options for brand new options. Those who promote the teammate metaphor are sometimes led down the path of constructing human-like designs, which have a protracted historical past of interesting robots, however succeed solely as leisure, crash check dummies, and medical mannequins. I don’t assume it will change. There are higher designs than human-like rescue robots, bomb disposal units, or pipe inspectors. In many circumstances four-wheeled or treaded autos are typical, normally tele-operated by a human controller.

The DaVinci surgical robotic isn’t a teammate. It is a well-designed tele-bot that permits surgeons to carry out exact actions in troublesome to succeed in small physique cavities (Figure 14.1, above). As Lewis Mumford reminds designers, profitable applied sciences diverge from human varieties. Intuitive Surgical, the developer of the DaVinci programs for cardiac, colorectal, urological, and different surgical procedures, makes clear that “Robots don’t perform surgery. Your surgeon performs surgery with Da Vinci by using instruments that he or she guides via a console.”

Many robotic units have a excessive diploma of tele-operation, by which an operator controls actions, though there’s a excessive diploma of automation. For instance, drones are tele-bots, though they’ve the capability to robotically hover or orbit at a hard and fast altitude, return to their take-off level, or observe a collection of operator-chosen GPS waypoints. The NASA Mars Rover autos even have a wealthy combination of tele-operated options and unbiased motion capabilities, guided by sensors to detect obstacles or precipices, with plans to keep away from them. The management facilities at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs have dozens of operators who management numerous programs on the Rovers, even when they’re a whole lot of tens of millions of miles away. It is one other wonderful instance of mixing excessive ranges of human management and excessive ranges of automation.

Terms like tele-bots and telepresence counsel different design prospects. These devices allow distant operation and extra cautious management of units, resembling when tele-pathologists management a distant microscope to check tissue samples. Combined designs take restricted, but mature and confirmed options of teammate fashions and embed them in units that increase people by direct or tele-operated controls.

Another means that computer systems might be seen as teammates is by offering info from enormous databases and superhuman sensors. When the outcomes of refined algorithms are displayed on information-abundant shows, resembling in three-dimensional medical echocardiograms with false coloration to point blood circulation quantity, clinicians might be extra assured in making cardiac remedy choices. Similarly, customers of Bloomberg Terminals for monetary knowledge see their computer systems as enabling them to make bolder decisions in shopping for shares or rebalancing mutual fund retirement portfolios (Figure 14.2, beneath). The Bloomberg Terminal makes use of a specialised keyboard and a number of giant shows, with a number of home windows usually organized by customers to be spatially steady so that they know the place to search out what they want. With tiled, fairly than overlapped, home windows customers can rapidly discover what they need with out rearranging home windows or scrolling. The voluminous knowledge wanted for a choice is definitely seen and clicking in a single window produces related info in different home windows. More than 300,000 customers pay $20,000 per year to have this supertool on their desks.


In abstract, the persistence of the teammate metaphor means it has enchantment for a lot of designers and customers. While customers ought to really feel tremendous about describing their computer systems as teammates, designers who harness the distinctive options of computer systems, resembling refined algorithms, enormous databases, superhuman sensors, information-abundant shows, and highly effective effectors could produce more practical tele-bots which might be appreciated by customers as supertools.

All merchandise really helpful by Engadget are chosen by our editorial crew, unbiased of our mother or father company. Some of our tales embrace affiliate hyperlinks. If you purchase one thing by means of one in all these hyperlinks, we could earn an affiliate fee.