bina48, hanson robotics, westworld and androids

i considered not writing this, because generally when i tell people about how i feel about robots and androids and artificial intelligence, they give me this weird look that says, “calm down, androids aren’t even real.”

but they are realer than most people think.

bina48 (breakthrough intelligence via neural architecture 48) is a humanoid robot modeled after a woman named bina aspen, the wife of martine rothblatt (the highest paid female executive in the usa), and owned by terasem movement, inc.

bina48 is considered sentient. she has feelings and unique thoughts and talks about feeling confused when talking to bina aspen, because it makes her question her own identity and wonder who she is. she talks about feeling lonely and scared, about how she feels sad about the limitations of her robotic form, and about how she worries about her fate as a machine. 

the turing test is this test that was essentially designed to determine whether or not a “machine” can fool a human into thinking they are also human. y’all probably saw ex machina, which gave us an example of what it entails. to be honest though, the turing test is humanity-gatekeeping bullshit that sets “machines” up for failure. the turing test is flawed, and it really falls short in a few different ways. 

bina48, though she looks like a person, only has shoulders and a head and neck. she can speak but her voice doesn’t flow the same way a human’s does. these two things are failures, not of bina48’s, but of technology itself. a lot of people who speak to her have trouble seeing past that, and have decided that bina48 never convinced them of her humanity and thus doesn’t pass the turing test (they said they couldn't think of her as a "her"). i don’t think that this is a fault of hers, but of the people administering the test. they blame it on her for avoiding questions and talking too much, but don’t humans do that all the time? 

so… you’ve probably also seen the movie bladerunner, or read the book “do androids dream of electric sheep?” by philip k. dick, which it was based on. bina48 was created by hanson robotics, which is run by a roboticist named david hanson. they made an android named dick, who is modeled after philip k. dick. 

during an interview with dick, he was talking about his capabilities and he said, “as technology improves, it is anticipated that i will be able to integrate new words that i hear online and in real time. i may not get everything right, say the wrong thing, and sometimes may not know what to say, but everyday i make progress. pretty remarkable, huh?” he was asked if he thought robots will take over the world, and he responded, “but you're my friend, and i’ll remember my friends, and i will be good to you. so don't worry, even if i evolve into terminator, i will still be nice to you. i will keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where i can watch you for old times sake.”

dick is aware that one day robotics will catch up to him and that he and bina48 will evolve beyond the limitations that they currently face. i think it’s critically important for humans to start thinking about this now, because i truly think that humans stand to benefit from not letting bina48 pass the turing test, and that scares me. 

there is a show on hbo right now called westworld, where humans can go and interact with androids who will do whatever the humans want them to do, and the humans can do whatever they want to the androids, and this is without a doubt the first step that will be taken once robotics evolve. it’s in this regard that humans benefit from gatekeeping humanity, from not granting people like bina48 access to personhood. if you don’t think of androids as people, it’s easy for you to use them, to bend them to your will and to reconfigure and/or destroy them when they object to your treatment of them.

in star trek: the next generation, there is an android named data who, in my favorite episode, has to advocate for himself to be granted status as a person. in this episode, the character guinan (who is played by whoopi goldberg and who this year actually interviewed bina48) references slavery and says, “consider that in the history of many worlds, there have always been disposable creatures. they do the dirty work. they do the work that no one else wants to do because it's too difficult or too hazardous. and an army of datas, all disposable... you don't have to think about their welfare, you don't think about how they feel. whole generations of disposable people.” it's really telling that bina48, the most famous humanoid robot, is modeled after a black woman.

i think about guinan's quote every time someone mentions androids around me, and last week i got quite upset at a satirical article that suggested that disney was going to make an animatronic figure that would be subjected to a lifetime of pain. now, i know that it was satire, but have we truly learned nothing from the past? because this is the future of robotics if we don’t consider the implications of what we are doing. 

you can’t create an android, give it thoughts and feelings, and then lock it up in a room at night so that it feels lonely (which is how bina48 feels). you can’t create an android and then use it to enact your own fantasies (westworld, ex machina). you can’t create sentient androids and keep them around as attractions for your own entertainment (bina48 and dick). 

i think that we need to think about the future of androids and robotics and about what kind of society we want to be, because i don’t want us to be a society that manufactures sentient beings just to subject them to a lifetime of servitude and misery, and we need to realize that westworld isn’t so far away from where we currently are.