Bots: Cloth Monkeys or AI Friends And Lovers

Remember Harry Harlow’s cloth monkeys?

In the famous experiment, monkeys were taken from their mothers at birth and put in homes with different surrogate mothers. Some got a wire-mesh mother. Some got a soft, cloth mother.

The monkeys spent more time clinging to the cloth mother. Even when the wire-mesh mother had a bottle attached and was the source of milk, the monkeys with the cloth mothers spent more time clinging to the soft surrogate mum than the metal one.

The emergence of bots on Facebook (see image below), Twitter and Kik will re-ignite the debate around whether technology helps us connect to people or separates us from them.

When a group of teenagers are not talking to each other, but instead staring at their phones, some would say that there’s a loss of human connection.

When we start to use bots for customer service, and then to chat too like a friend, people will be concerned of this kind of fake conversation.

When the AIs move from app-based bots to ambient computers like Amazon’s Dash, to eventually become housed in lifelike humanoid robots (like the one below), some people will be scared and hate these new companions.

Bots and AI could become our cloth mothers — the things we interact with in lieu of other humans.

Those who are pro-AI imagine the positive outcomes that human-like conversations will have. With an increasingly elderly population in the West, and many millions of older (and not so old people) who are lonely, bots and AIs would be a much better companion than TV or the radio. GeckoSystems has already produced a healthcare companion called Carebot — see image below.

While this doesn’t solve the real problem — that perhaps no one should be lonely and we might want to build better communities and a society that figures out how to connect with those most in need — it is a pragmatic approach to solving loneliness.

The cloth monkey experiment didn’t give the animals new mothers to love them. It gave them something for the monkey to love and touch and have the semblance of primate interaction. Bots will move from helpful concierge to companion fast, because there’s a huge void that needs to be filled.

There’s now an app for everything. I don’t think you need a bot for everything. But for some things, bots will be much more impactful. Customer service centres will use bots and humans together to solve problems. The test of whether these bots are successful, will be whether people are more or less irritated being served by an AI quickly, or waiting in a call centre queue to talk to a real human — who may or may not be any better at fixing problems.

Bots will be the new tamagotchis and virtual girlfriends. They’ll be the soothing talking computer in all the sci-fi movies we watched growing up. They’ll talk to us through our phones and our Amazon Echo. They’ll be built into the first humanoid robots sold to consumers. Their success will depends on whether they act more like Microsoft’s Tay robot that was trolled by Twitter users to write hate-filled Nazi tweets, or whether they are more like Scarlett Johansson’s character in Her — the computer OS that is almost as good as a real-life girlfriend.

What we want to avoid is building the calm house computer Proteus in Demon Seed who goes around locking you in your own home and impregnating women with cyborg children.

Note: Proteus + Julie Christie makes for an ugly cyborg baby.

Why bots are important is that they are a rehearsal for AI in the wider forms to come.

If people love bots, it will make it easier for people to see the positive uses of AI. If bots are as annoying as call centre hold music, much more work will need to be done to accept AI into our daily lives.

I’m reminded of a poem by Richard Brautigan…

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

I like to think
(and the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

To some, this future sounds like utopia, to others, dystopia. No one wants to wake up one day and realise we’ve built ourselves cloth monkeys.

The role of bots in 2016 and 2107 is as a digital friend getting stuff done that takes up too much of our time and thoughts. Done well, bots will free us up to help us become the best versions of us we can be.