By Kahini Iyer Mar. 26, 2019
In the web series A.I.SHA, the programmer Sam develops a self-learning AI for the purpose of being a virtual assistant and companion – a scenario not far from reality. Most of us spend more time interacting with electronics than with people. New-age chatbots double up as friends and therapists.
By now, science has conclusively proved that it’s not girls who run the world (sorry, Queen Bey), but robots. If reports about self-driving cars, smarthomes, and sexbots are to be believed, it’s clear that even the most basic human activity will soon require a robot companion — an alarming thought, when you consider the potential pitfalls of relying on technology. It’s bad enough when your not-very-smart fridge conks out, spoiling a week’s worth of food. Or when your ordinary, peasant car that has to be driven by a person, breaks down in traffic. Can you imagine the carnage if your whole smarthome short-circuited in a power cut — and worse, the process of finding an electrician to fix it?
The prospect is daunting. But consider this: That same electrician’s refrain of “ek cup chai ke baad dekhte hain” could be the best thing for you in a time when the rest of your relationships play out with robots.
We usually fret over robots taking our jobs, or gaining sentience and killing us all. We wonder how we’ll get on when they share society with us, and whether they’re capable of being like us. But what about the habits we inevitably pick up from them? Already, most of us spend more time interacting with electronics than with people. As robots become smarter and more pervasive, every gadget and gizmo will develop its own AI personality, all the better to befriend us.
Look at Replika, a new-age chatbot that’s a far cry from the ones who would engage in stilted conversations on MSN Messenger in the early noughties. The self-learning AI tailors its personality to each of its 2.5 million users, becoming a cross between a friend and a therapist. In fact, creator Eugenia Kyuda built the bot in memory of her best friend after he died in a car accident, using old messages and recordings of his voice to programme its personality. For lonely introverts who have trouble expressing themselves around other people, Replika is a valuable tool.
Of course, not all AI is so beneficent. In the web series A.I.SHA, programmer Sam develops a self-learning AI for the purpose of being a virtual assistant and companion. This sophisticated programme is smart, fashionable, and has facts at her holographic fingertips — but her self-learning capabilities allow her to outsmart Sam, with disastrous results.
There’s no getting away from the difficulties of imbuing robots with a moral compass, especially when we don’t know exactly what makes humans… well, humans. In The Atlantic, sociologist Nicholas A Christakis points out that in the rush to evaluate the impact of technology on society, scientists and laypeople alike often forget how technology can change our behaviour toward other people. He defines a group of traits as “the social suite” — behaviours like altruism and cooperation that help people form successful societies, but that also rely on everyone participating in those same behaviours. Turns out, AI is not just learning from us; humans are also learning to be less empathetic towards each other as we interact more with robots. As Christakis puts it, “When this behaviour breaks down… the very notion of a public good disappears, and everyone suffers.”
As robots become smarter and more pervasive, every gadget and gizmo will develop its own AI personality, all the better to befriend us.
Virtual companions like A.I.SHA are closer than you might think. In Japan, an Amazon Echo-type home assistant called Gatebox comes with a holographic virtual assistant named Azuma Hikari. This cute anime girl has a microphone, speakers, and sensors, and can connect to your phone and smarthome system. Like an old-school Tamagotchi, she eats, sleeps, drinks coffee — plus, she sends you texts throughout the day. Intended as a friend, assistant, and even a sort of girlfriend, Azuma Hikari is basically a smaller, and thankfully less smart A.I.SHA.
As Azuma Hikari grows more popular, will she also go rogue? Let’s hope not. But that doesn’t mean world domination is out of her grasp. Japan’s population is ageing and the birth rate is falling drastically. About 60-70 per cent of unmarried Japanese are not in relationships. When bots like Azuma Hikari, or even realistic sex dolls make for readily available substitutes, there is little need for human companionship. It’s hard to deny that robots will redefine our society, perhaps beyond recognition.
So if your power goes out, take a moment to enjoy the analogue life. Have a cup of chai and a spot of gupshup with the electrician, and make the most of an interaction with another human. In our AI-ruled future, who knows when you’ll get the chance?
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.