Thank you very much Mr. Roboto

 Science fiction author Isaac Asimov probably would have had a thing or two to say about the world of robotics.

 Science fiction author Isaac Asimov probably would have had a thing or two to say about the world of robotics. But perhaps even he would be speechless about what we are presented with today.

This month, a study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences found that 18-month-old babies identify vaguely humanoid robots (silvery, box-like electronics with a head and limbs) as human, and accept them as sentient beings. This study also suggests that these children would accept these robots as caretaker figures.

Then, in Montreal, a completely robotic surgery was performed to remove a man’s prostate. Everything, from anesthesia to actual surgery, was done remotely through the use of robotics. These robots had names, too—McSleepy and DaVinci. There were no complications reported, and the doctors involved are confident that robotics in medicine will make things safer and provide better outcomes for the patients.

Asimov was an author known for his works of fiction involving robots and the moral issues that come along with the subject—his work has been interpreted on the small and big screen, most recently as a movie staring Will Smith titled “I, Robot.” Such work begs us to ask ourselves: Just how deeply into people’s lives is robotics going to delve? How deeply should it delve?

Granted, neither of these above cases is an example of artificial intelligence, so the world might not have an Asimovian nightmare to contend with any time soon, but it is still a question to be asked. Will there come a day when routine surgeries are performed by machines without human guidance? Since babies think robots are human anyway, will there be a time when parents leave the baby with the ‘bot so they can run out and grab a cup of coffee? And about that coffee—will the barista be carbon-based or metallic? It’s a lot to consider.

It sounds great at first, actually. Society loves automation. Why stand in line at the bank for the teller to mundanely snap her gum at you as she counts your money? After all, right outside is an Automated Teller Machine (ATM). You don’t want to learn how to parallel park? No problem—there are cars that can do it for you. Vending machines can even mix coffees for you—seriously, you can get your non-fat mocha without having to deal with human contact. And best of all, it’s so efficient. Wouldn’t more of the same be great?

No, actually. Not really.

The fact of the matter is that no matter how automated a process becomes, it will still be inferior to human service. The ATM won’t care if you tell it that it miscounted your money, but the teller at the bank, for all the chewing gum in the world, will probably pay some attention to you. Machines make mistakes, and unlike humans, they can’t always make up for them. Your car ends up rear-ending the one behind you when it parallel parks itself? It doesn’t care. The vending machine gives you a cappuccino instead of the mocha you wanted? Tough. It won’t let you return it.

Another problem? Automation is the ultimate form of outsourcing. Think about it. What responsible business owner hires expensive employees with rights, unions, and health care? Profit-oriented business owners are going to rely more and more on automation and robotics, and the more that’s automated, the less that employees will have to do. Which means, naturally, that fewer employees will be needed. It leads to more unemployment, which is terrible for all involved.

And no matter how they’re programmed, robots are never going to have that human factor—empathy, compromise, or emotionality. An automated machine is not going to ask how your day has been and try to relate to you. You can’t have a two-sided discussion about how great these muffins are with a hunk of metal. And where a human might meet you halfway, a machine will always be programmed for its purpose; compromise is hardly going to be that purpose.

Where should the line be drawn? It clearly needs to be defined soon enough. Letting robots care for children is only theoretical now, but in 10 years? It just might be a reality. In the next few decades, non-remote surgery might be phased out entirely. Automation and robotics are slippery slopes. It is important not to let them go too far.

And maybe they already have. ?