What have the 1790s and robotics in common? – Rachel Hewitt and Alan Winfield

12 May

At first glance I didn’t think a talk about the 1790s and robotics (on the same bill at the Swindon Festival of Literature) would have much in common.

But I was wrong.

For one thing, quack doctor James Graham invented an electrical sex bed in the late 18th century, and, people being people, one of the robotics questions from the audience was, when will we get a sex robot? (Alan is actually chairing a panel discussion in Hay on Wye  about this very thing. It’s sold out.)

Rachel used Mariah Carey’s song Emotions, to demonstrate how modern day attitudes consider emotions firmly in the realm of the personal, whereas in the 18th century they were considered political. Alan Winfield discussed, among other things, how robots could care for people, but couldn’t care about people.

Robots could be set up with a series of parameters that could mimic caring, but ultimately couldn’t care in person.

But does this matter, asked an audience member? What is wrong with a robotic seal or Siri, even, treated as a pet or a friend, a repository for love? Alan replied that it probably didn’t, as long as everyone knew the score.

And perhaps some see a thinking-only creature as the ultimate being, unfettered by emotion whose ‘significance begins and ends with the individual’.

But, Rachel argues, the idea of personal emotion has been one of those things keeping women down. Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft argued against fellow philosopher and politician Edmund Burke’s idea of chivalry, as based on the idea that women were the property of men. Somewhat depressingly you still see this all over modern day TV and film – the man who must rescue his woman and children at all costs, these feeble receptacles of his love, his weak links. Emotion, Wollstonecraft argued, has been used to make women the toys of men and keep them in their place. Reform themselves – those feminine tropes and moral codes – and reform the world.

Wollstonecraft wasn’t against emotion, she just felt (thought?) it would be better served changing the world. Rachel wants to bring back this idea of regulated emotion, to harness it to create change, rather than see it as an instinctive, out-of-control bodily thing affecting only how ‘I’ feel. It’s OK to feel cross about climate change or poverty, as long as you use it to do something about it. I’d argue this is a change not of emotion, but how we act on those emotions. Perhaps the change is moving from the powerless emotion to the empowered emotion, coined by Reinhold Niebuhr –  ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

There’s a couple of things which gives Alan the sleep-depriving emotion of worry. Lack of diversity in robotics, for one, mostly white libertarian young men, he says. This is not just an equality thing – the current development of robots which work alongside people and replace parts of the body, need to work for all types of people. Wollstonecraft would agree. Another is the lack of transparency into robotic ethics – the Arizona Uber self-driving car fatality in March should never have happened; test-driving robotics in a human environment – especially on the back of a secret deal done with the state governor – is ‘criminally irresponsible’. Another thing which would benefit from some robust philosophy – and re-reading of Asimov and K. Dick.

So, Alan’s team at the Bristol University Robotics Laboratory has created robots who eat food (and poop too) which led to festival and refugee toilet lights powered by urine. But – should we be worried yet about sentient AI? According to Alan we are as close to sentient AI as the first space flight is to warp drive. Which either means we’re getting warp drive soon, or artificial emotional people are a long way off.

(PS if you want to know about Ebenezer Sibly and the spermatic liquor, and the electrical sex bed, you’ll have to read Rachel’s book.)

Rachel Hewitt, author of A Revolution of Feeling: the Decade that Forged the Modern Mind, and Alan Winfield, author of Robotics: a Very Short Introduction, spoke at the Swindon Arts Centre as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature, 11 May 2018.

For the latest on robotics, visit robohub.org

Words by Louisa Davison. Festival photos © Fernando Bagué. Pee Power from Bristol Post

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