On Monday, Nanyang Technological University unveiled Nadine, and the social receptionist robot already got a mix of reactions because of its human-like look and functions.
Nadine has taken the likeness of its lead developer, Professor Nadia Thalmann, the director of NTU's Institute for Media Innovation. The resemblance is so close that the humanoid and Thalmann could be mistaken as biological sisters.
Nadine is designed with a set of emotions that complement its mood and personality. Yes, it has a personality and can even greet people with a smile, talk and react appropriately. It can even remember a person and previous conversations, so make sure not to bring up any embarrassing stories when interacting with it.
"This is somewhat like a real companion that is always with you and conscious of what is happening. So in [the] future, these socially intelligent robots could be like C-3PO, the iconic golden droid from Star Wars, with knowledge of language and etiquette," Thalmann explained.
We understand the concept, but if we're talking about socially intelligent robots, C-3PO might not be the best robot to bring up. Perhaps the NDR-114 named Andrew played by Robin Williams in the 1999 film, "Bicentennial Man," or the robots of 2001's "AI: Artificial Intelligence" would fit the bill better.
Coincidentally, the mixed reactions that Nadine received centers on the issues thematically embedded in both films. Take a few minutes to watch both trailers below.
The Positive Side
On the upside, positive reception of Nadine is because of the innovation and technology themselves. Some countries face the challenge of dwindling population and diminishing workforce. Humanoid robots can make up for the scarcity without creeping out clients when forced to face and talk to a chunk of metal in order to schedule an appointment. At least with a humanoid like Nadine, there will be some level of comfort.
Likewise, Thalmann sees social robots as a possible companion for children and the elderly. This is why her team commenced a cross-disciplinary research, involving computer science, engineering, linguistics, psychology and other fields in order to give Nadine a more human-like approach.
Not everyone is happy about the development, though.
The Negative Side
It's not only Nadine's appearance that unsettles people, but the possibilities. There's always the irrational fear of robots taking over the world and you can thank various science fiction literature and films for that.
But, more than irrational fears and Nadine's close resemblance to a human being, experts are worried about the ethical implications.
"Looking at Nadine, I'm worried that technology will make us forget what we knew about life," Massachusetts Institute of Technology social studies of science and technology professor, Sherry Turkle, said.
The existence of humanoid robots like Nadine even brings up noted Psychoalanyst, Sigmund Freud's "The Uncanny" into the discussion. "The 'uncanny' is that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar ... the uncanny would always be that in which one does not know where one is, as it were," Freud explained (PDF).
By "where" Freud is not talking about an actual physical place, but rather, a person's position or situation. The "uncanny" involves a person's intellectual uncertainty, and for someone who is usually surrounded by the familiar, when confronted with something that looks familiar and feels familiar, but you know in your mind is not supposed to be familiar, that's where the disconnect lets the uncanny enter.
"You start making a robot more and more like a person ... and the fact that you're starting to respond to it like it's a person starts to creep you out ... I feel that, absolutely, just because we can do a thing, doesn't mean we should," Turkle said.
Both sides are completely understandable, however, it may not be time to feel "the uncanny" yet because Nadine still has a long way to go before it can be considered really human-like. Judge for yourself from the video below.