(Note: just about everything I say here about humanoid robots I would also say about “more human” user interfaces and similar technology. I’ve decided to focus on robots to keep this post short.)
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of reports of research into making robots that are better imitations of humans, in a number of ways (speech, movement, etc.), and it would appear that roboticists are making great strides in this field of research. While I don’t want to minimize the amount of effort that has gone into these achievements — they really are impressive from a technical standpoint — I would like to take a moment to question whether robots that mimic humans should be considered the ultimate goal of robotics.
Personally, as a potential customer who would totally buy a robot to deal with housework, I really don’t want a robot that thinks, acts, and moves like a person. Even if we lay aside the ethical issues with owning an intelligent machine (perhaps by assuming that the researchers know what they’re talking about when they say that, despite appearances, the robot is in fact non-sentient — whether we can safely do that is a topic for another post), we’re left with a machine that’s going to say “Good Morning!” when I walk past it, and possibly (if the designers are accurate enough) guilt me into replying, when all I really wanted was a machine that could make me breakfast. The last thing I (and a suspect a lot of people as well) need in the morning is a bunch of unnecessary pleasantries — coming from a machine that could have been programmed otherwise, no less — standing between me and my cereal.
In addition to wasting the user’s social energy with unnecessary phatic communication, a truly human-mimicking robot would probably make it nearly impossible to relax for those of us on the introvert side of things. Having a person around is draining, even if they aren’t trying to interact, and it’s hard for me and many others to really, truly relax unless we are totally alone. Trying to precisely imitate the experience of having a human maid do the cleaning would likely lead to a machine that also precisely imitated those burdens on neuroatypical folks. It would be sort of like designing a tablet whose only input method was to write commands by hand* — although you see things like that in SciFi from time to time, the shear impracticality of that design prevents them from gaining a foothold in the physical world.
The one area where I would appreciate greater humanoid-ness is in language processing, since being able to give voice commands would be more convenient when my hands are full. But even there, the robot doesn’t need to imitate all of the phatic communication that humans are fond of. And there are plenty of times when it would be nice to be able to turn off the voice command interface, and give commands by pushing buttons — say, if it’s late at night and I don’t want to make noise, or don’t want to hear noise because I’m lost in thought and don’t want to be disturbed by it.
I don’t mean to imply that research into humanoid robots should stop, or that nobody should try to build or market a robot that can act human (again, evading ethical issues by assuming that it is non-sentient). But please try to make sure that doesn’t become the one holy grail of the industry that everyone strives towards, leaving the people who would prefer a robotic robot in the lurch. Because we’re out there, and we’re potential customers. In fact, we’re likely to be early adopters if the technology suits our needs. So please do try and make sure that your robots are usable for us as well.
*Lots of people are probably now thinking, “but I have a tablet that lets me do that! I’ve even used it to take notes!”. To this I ask: is that how you answer your email, or do you use the keyboard? Obviously, there will be some people for whom the handwriting option may be the better one, but I suspect that a substantial majority will prefer the keyboard.