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On the 21st February 2017, I participated in a British Academy debate on the topic 'Are we ready for robot relationships?'. The debate took place at DeMonfort University, Leicester UK. It featured contributions from Luke Dormehl, Margaret Boden, Kathleen Richardson, Nicole Dewandre and myself. You can watch the video of the debate above.
My opening statement starts at around 22 minutes and I make four points in this opening statement:
- Robot relationships are already happening and are likely to increase in number. Consequently, there is little point debating our readiness for them: they are going to happen whether we are ready or not.
- It is worth asking whether robot relationships are a good or bad thing, but in doing so we have to be careful. The concept of a 'relationship' is vague. There are many different types of relationship in human society and there are different ethical standards and norms that apply to each. Robots might be appropriate partners in some relationships, but not others.
- If we limit ourselves to friendships, then we still have the problem that there are many styles of friendship. Robots may not be capable of being our Aristotelian (virtue) friends, but this doesn't really matter. They can still be our utility/pleasure friends.
- Some people worry that robot friendships will replace or undermine human friendships, but it could also be the case that robot friendships complement and facilitate human friendships.
I was the only participant who defended a broadly positive outlook on robot relationships, but I did this largely for the purposes of balance within the debate. I share some of the concerns articulated by the others.
On the whole, I think the conversation generated by the debate was positive. I would encourage people to watch it and to see what the other participants had to say.