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Why Toshiba’s new robot is preventing a gigadeath future war

Posted by Benedict Sycamore on 23rd April 2015

I’ve always wanted to visit Japan, you could say I’m obsessed. I’ve seen Lost in Translation enough times to recite all of Bill Murray’s lines off-by-heart and my wardrobe is home to a good few painfully nerdy manga T-shirts. But if there’s one thing to stifle my japanophilia, it’s definitely automatonophobia – the fear of anything that falsely represents a sentient being.

Toshiba recently installed Aiko Chihira, a humanoid robot, at Tokyo’s Mitsukoshi department store. The kimono wearing machine will guide you around the shop while it blinks and smiles. It’s enough to freak me out, and I bloody love robots.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what possessed the designers at Toshiba to commit this aesthetic atrocity, but it’s certainly not doing any favours to the public opinion of intelligent machines, which is at an all time low. Not only are swathes of workers currently biting their fingernails at the fear of automation elbowing them out of livelihood, but even humanity’s crack team of top boffins, including Professor Stephen Hawking, have warned of the inevitable rise of the machines – but don’t call Arnie just yet…

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords – but only if they don’t look like Aiko Chihira.

Creating robots that look and act exactly like humans is not only creepy, but it’s totally impractical. Will we need robot grill cooks in fast food restaurants to look like the human grill cooks they replace? There’s little point in emulating physical human characteristics in robotics outside of prosthetics, it defeats the object of minimising cost and maximising efficiency – and with such an unnerving appearance, adoption and acceptance of automata is going to stay pretty low.

I personally believe it is almost unavoidable that in the near future, the human race will work closely with artificial super-intelligent machines, become them, or even be replaced by them. Resistance is futile. A breakthrough in this area will most certainly smash the glass-ceiling of social development and evolution we’ve encountered as a species. I find it incredibly exciting, but some people do not.

Hugo de Garis is a retired researcher on artificial intelligence, who predicts there will be a major multi billion-death war by the end of this century between ‘Cosmists’, who support intelligent machines, and ‘Terrans’, who oppose them.

You may have already guessed that I’m a Cosmist, in principle* – and if we have any chance of winning this future-war, we need better PR. It’d certainly help our case if our robot-brethren aren’t blinking, smiling, wearing kimonos and scaring the bejesus out of everyone. If intelligent machines can’t climb out of uncanny valley, they’ll end up being smashed to bits by 21st century Luddites before they’re even half-sentient. At which rate, Cosmists and Terrans will never have their multi billion-death war.

* I am not mad and do not worship microwave ovens

Image credit: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

Benedict Sycamore