BRITE ’15: Robots have feelings, too

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Are we ready for smart tech with a soul?

Technology is integral to life. It’s hard to imagine how we could live without it. For those of us who were teenagers before cell phones, we wonder how we made and executed plans with friends successfully. Instead of texing with emojis, we had to pass notes in class and negotiate for phone time with our siblings and parents.

Now smartphones, social media, mobile apps, and wearables combine to keep us on track and connected.

In my own case, Fitbit tracks my energy in and out so I can better manage my eating, exercise and sleep habits. The data and analysis it provides has modified my behavior. My quality of life has improved, and I have confidence that if I wander off track this rubber bracelet and app provide the tools to get me back in line.

I don’t mind technology tracking my personal habits. I feel better.

Keeping a warm touch with family, close friends, acquaintances, and business contacts is seamless — no matter where I am or what device I’m using — through my favorite social media platforms (Swarm, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram), whether I’m using their websites or apps.

I don’t mind technology tracking my whereabouts and contacts. I connect with people.

My smartphone — which I often refer to as my camera — is essential for waking me up in the morning (Alarm Clock), informing how to dress (The Weather Channel app), listing my priorities during the day (Google Calendar), communicating (text, various email apps, Skype, WhatsApp), capturing moments (Camera), inspiring me (music apps, social nets, AstrologyZone app), and managing my finances (Citi app, shopping, etc.).

I don’t mind technology making me dependent on this device. It makes life easier.

All of these are real benefits — physical and emotional rewards enabled by technology.

I am a technophile. And my answer to that age-old question, What would you take to a deserted island?, is wifi and any connected device.

However, I’m not sure I’m ready for the Next Big Thing in tech: Robots.

Neither is everyone else, apparently.

“A mass shift challenge” is how RobotBase founder and CEO Duy Huynh (pronounced “dewey win”) characterizes the adoption of Maya, his Personal Robot that’s capable of managing connected devices in your home, helping you accessorize and cook, and delivering a bedtime routine for your kids.

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Maya with her creator, Duy Huynh of RobotBase. PHOTO RobotBase

Speaking at the BRITE Conference, put on by The Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, earlier this month Huynh said while people are comfortable relying on technology to make data-informed decisions like Google Maps recommending a route or Pandora choosing a song or a recipe app matching dishes to the ingredients in your pantry.

Maya is different. She has sensory perception.

She can look at your outfit and suggest how to accessorize for item and color. She can take a group photo that’s a keeper by making sure everyone’s in the frame and calling out, “Smile!” just before she snaps the image. She can read to your child at bedtime by displaying book pages on her screen and reading along, with just the right inflections and pauses. See for yourself.

And, taking a giant leap forward, she can ask you a question, read your expression, hear your words, then reflect and respond.

Thrilling, scary or both?

Hyungh’s invention is on the cutting edge of connected devices, robots and artificial intelligence. He didn’t reveal how much it cost for the research and production, but did allow that he raised $165,000 via Kickstarter and more funds through his website.

When Hyungh fielded questions from the BRITE attendees, there was a mix of excitement, skepticism and trepidation.

As a fascinating follow to Huynh’s presentation of Maya, a philosopher stepped up to the podium to discuss the ethics of robotics.

“We can expect that robots in the future could look, move, think, create, and experience like us,” said John Morrison, an assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College who specializes in this area. If we equate them with humans who experience emotional feelings – as Morrison and Hyunh believe they are capable – it follows that we should respect them as beings.

In other words, Morrison said, “Morally we shouldn’t treat them differently” by turning them off or destroying them.

“I think the soul is just thought and consciousness so as long as that is part of robots, then we should say they have souls, as well,” he told me. “Historically souls were things that were supposed to explain how we can think and why we are conscious. If you think souls have a theological significance beyond that, the question to ask yourself is Why would God love human beings more than robots? if robots can do all the things I mentioned – which is think, feel, be conscious.”

There will be a time when “robot” gets redefined, Morrison said. What if we implant technology into our bodies, such as an iPhone, do we become a robot?

If one agrees that consciousness equates to a soul, as Morrison does, will law evolve to protect the rights of robots?

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The Center on Brand Leadership at Columbia University puts on this annual conference to discuss how tech and innovation are transforming the ways companies build and sustain great brands.

It may seem sci-fi, but these are the questions innovators like Huynh and philosophers like Morrison are parsing every day.

People accept browser cookies, allow beacons to be tracked by social apps and retailers, and increasingly expect automated capabilities from smart tech-enabled appliances and systems in the homes and cars.

We don’t mind being tracked – our location, preferences and behaviors – as long as it might give us a reward, but what will it take to get us to spend $995 for another personality at home? (Maya doesn’t eat or make a mess, but she does speak, listen and follow you around; except if you’re taking the stairs.)

We’ll see.

As technology continues to connect us and artificial intelligence evolves, we’re sure to engage with more personal robots in our homes, offices and public spaces.

For more on AI, see Harvard Business Review’s Artificial Intelligence is Almost Ready for Business (March 19, 2015).

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