An increase in the presence of anthropomorphic robots has occurred since the turn to the 21st century. In particular, the presence of anthropomorphic robots among human populations has increased over the past seven years. The latest example is BlessU-2, a robot priest now providing Biblical verses and absolution in five languages.
Anthropomorphic artificial constructs have long held humanity’s fascination. Stories of automata are common across time, culture (e.g. Greek, Chinese), and religion (e.g. Judaism, Islam). In almost every account, automata are intended to function better than homo sapiens sapiens, thus making our lives easier. Since the end of WWII, all industrialized countries have moved to increased automation in varying degrees. However, the technology for increasingly anthropomorphic robots has only recently advanced to a degree that allows human-like functionality.
BlessU-2 is not the first anthropomorphic robot specifically designed to interact with the general population. A Longquan Buddhist temple in China uses a small robot to assist in teaching about Buddhism. A robotic law enforcement officer is active in Dubai, and more than a few companies are working towards producing robots designed for those intimate adult moments.
This represents the trifecta of topics not to discuss at parties (religion, politics, sex), which is a boring party indeed. Surely it is not coincidence that these activity spheres also receive a high degree of attention by most people on a daily basis, a situation that has existed since pre-history. Furthermore, all three feature prominently in the definition of humanity, particularly in reference to the concepts of culture and society.
Anthropology provides a broad definition of culture as a strategy of adaptations. The adaptations manifest as learned, shared behaviors, transmitted non-biologically as ideas and rules that provide guidelines for relationships. A general definition of society is a group of people with sustained interaction and a shared culture. Sustained interaction means the broad-spectrum of relationships, so culture provides the guidelines for how we interact with our fellow humans during each and every interaction that occurs.
Seen through the lens of anthropology, these robots are examples of replacing one side of the relationship within the socio-cultural context of the human experience. Does the replacement of one side of a relationship with an artificial construct change how we define humanity? I posit that the definition does not change in the slightest because the use of robots is an example of an adaptive strategy, just like any other tool. All humans, to varying degrees, employ a relationship that replaces the “human” on one side of the human-to-human relationship. A good example is religion as it consists of a human-to-supernatural relationship. A more recent introduction is human-to-robot relationships such as at the ATM, the grocery store check-out, tablets and mobile phones.
The interesting question is why the use of anthropomorphic robots is increasing in popularity. Many studies show that people prefer non-human looking robots, and that while the human form is quite good for many things, it is not so good at quite a lot of other things for which different forms are more suitable. Is robot anthropomorphism representing a “build what you know” mentality? Is it a metric by which robotic engineers can compete since such a form requires a tremendous amount of work and a lot of energy to function? What do you think?