In early 2017, psychologist and author Serge Tisseron was invited to give his views on the ethical issues surrounding the development of artificial intelligence to the French National Assembly and Senate. Here he talks to L'Atelier BNP Paribas about the steady encroachment of robotics and AI into our daily lives.

IA or robots: who's the greater threat to jobs?

A PhD in Psychology, a Research Fellow at the University Paris VII Denis Diderot, and a member of the French National Academy of Technologies, Serge Tisseron is the author of Le jour où mon robot m’aimera, vers l’empathie artificielle (The Day When my Robot Loves Me: Towards Artificial Empathy), available from French publisher Albin-Michel.

L’Atelier: Is creating robots that closely imitate human traits a useful way to facilitate human-robot interactions?

Manufacturing robots is one thing but making them acceptable to users is quite another. The more robots resemble human beings, the more we come to trust them, provided that the resemblance doesn’t cause any confusion. However, you don’t really know who’s behind a robot. Often it’s a large corporation, which is certainly not acting purely out of philanthropic motives. What is reassuring about a human appearance is the illusion that we’re dealing with a ‘closed system’ – which is what a human being is.  The more human-looking a robot is, and – to put it another way – the more we’re inclined to imagine that it’s really ‘independent’, the more we’re likely to forget that it’s transmitting data on us back to its manufacturer…

The Japanese are testing out humanoids for reception work and providing information to visitors, while the Europeans and Americans prefer robots to have a more utilitarian design. How do you explain these very different approaches?

Well, what we have here is a major cultural difference. The Western tradition is based on making a clear distinction between the human and the non-human, the original and a copy, Good and Evil, etc. We live in an ‘either-or’ culture. In Japan on the other hand, no distinction is made between the original and a copy. Public monuments are demolished every 50 years and rebuilt in identical fashion. A Japanese person can get married in a Christian wedding ceremony and arrange to be buried in the Buddhist manner. Theirs is a ‘both-and’ culture. And in the Shinto tradition, which the current prime minister is now trying to restore to prominence, everything that is gifted with the power of movement has a soul. So the Japanese dream of building humanoids that could pass for human beings. In our culture, by contrast, there is more of a tendency to restrict humanoid features to robots for which such characteristics are absolutely necessary. And there’s another point here as well: the Japanese approach is to look after large numbers of elderly people in their own homes. Robots that are able to use all the household utensils that you find in Japanese homes will be able to do this.  So they need to have arms, hands and legs like human beings do.

Outside manufacturing shops, experiments with robots are still of very limited scope. How do you account for this timidity?

Well, things are going much faster in Japan. The problem as I see it is that we have too great a tendency to regard robots as sophisticated machines that we should learn to make use of and then manage them like slaves for the rest of their lives. However, a robot will not have a servile attitude towards human beings. The robot will be able to point out the mistakes people make and people will have to accept that.  The robot will be neither master, slave nor colleague, it will be a worker whose non-human abilities will need to mesh with and be complemented by the capabilities that humans have – provided that human beings are able to cooperate, show some creativity and deal with complexity.  However, our culture and our education system don’t prepare us very well for that.  Hence, in my opinion, the difficulty we have in regarding robots in a rational way.

Virtual Assistants are playing an ever-greater role in our lives – on our smartphones and in our houses, with such tools as Amazon Echo and Google Home. The public at large don’t seem scared of AI.  But do people’s perceptions of artificial intelligence change when the AI is embodied in a robot?

Well, we’re not affected in the same way by the two cases. As regards AI, the Digital Big Five – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft – are working to burnish their image by blowing alternately hot and cold. They say: “AI is very dangerous, but don’t worry, go on buying our products and we’ll protect you!” This is Mafia tactics. By contrast, people see robots as competition. With their two arms and two legs, we might well fear that they’ll take our jobs. In both cases, these are fantasies. AI might take away a lot of jobs, and robots will probably remain for a long time to come machines intended to improve human performance. But the way our brains process the facts is not the same in the two cases.

Might we eventually see the public turn against robots in a new Luddite uprising?

Yes, we might. The more we idealise robots as ‘autonomous’ machines, the more we’ll make people see them as competition. That’s why we need to remind people of the reality, which is a long way from the imaginary. We need to hold broad consultations at companies to help dissipate the beliefs and fantasies around robotics, analyse the human and social consequences of developing interactive robots, and think about how to promote good uses of these inventions by rethinking training and the organisation of work. 

By Alain Clapaud
Independent journalist specialising in the new technologies