Walking down 33rd Street, under the shadow of the Empire State Building, Frank Capri heads towards his usual Starbucks on the corner of Fifth Avenue while a multitude of human bodies pass him by. Some of these people are tourists; some of these people have a myopic fix on getting to work.
Capri makes small talk to the familiar barista, then takes his chai latte to a window table where he sits alone and ruminates about whether all this human interaction will disappear in the near future as robots will have a bigger role in society.
There is no idling by Capri as he sits down. His mind is processing scenarios of sentient robots being abused as slaves and he is fearful that another Civil Rights battle might erupt.
“As of 2011, the emphasis in robotics has been to make robots functional as mechanical servants, but soon robots will possess both thought and feeling,” said Capri. He quotes Erich Fromm, the 20th century social psychologist and humanistic philosopher, that the rational being has a balance of thought and feeling, and that either thought or feeling alone is irrational.
In the next 20 years, Capri envisions that robots will be sentient and that they’ll need protection. “This is where I would draw the line and call for a Bill of Rights for Robots.” He added, “We, as humans, need to exercise our sense of empathy toward the robots we are creating, and robots should be programmed with a sense of empathy toward us and each other.”
In the ‘60s Capri witnessed the struggles African Americans went through to gain civil rights and the struggles of women for equal rights. Now Capri’s knowledge as a cosmologist-futurist has him worried that as robots become more advanced, humans will fail to realize that robots are more than machines to simplify their lives.
“As we program robots at higher levels, I’ll be lobbying for programming an ethic of empathy.” More empathy is something humans could benefit from as well, believes Capri. “As humans, with at best a shaky record when it comes to avoiding war and harsh prejudices towards one another, we could do with some reprogramming ourselves.” The stronger the empathy, the less likely one’s tendency toward violence as a means of solving problems, explains Capri. “The hope of the future is not technology alone,” Capri adds. “It’s the empathy necessary for all of us, human and robot, to survive and thrive.”
The merging of humans and robots will be happening at warp speed and Capri is concerned that without preemptive laws in place to protect both parties it will be difficult to implement laws and Rights retro-actively. Having laws in place will benefit both people and robots and will improve interaction. He suggests it might already be time for the United Nations to begin contemplating these laws, so that robots are universally protected.
“The evolution of robots is inevitable,” Capri states forebodingly. The line between human and machine is already beginning to blur, and Capri wonders what will life be like for people who have had limbs and human features replaced by robotic parts. Humans will become more robotic as robots become more human. Capri sees the decay of personal contact growing around him.
Surrounding him are people locked into the zone on their smartphones connecting to a virtual world with impersonal interaction.
Capri welcomes techno advances but cautions that we not lock ourselves in electronic exile and lose face-to-face communication. Capri is cautiously optimistic about the growth of human-robot interaction. “Yesterday I had a dream of walking into a future Starbucks. Robots and humans were sharing tables and reminiscing about the struggle for robot civil rights, and talking about robots who would be running for public office.”
In the meantime, Capri’s question to us all is, “Are we ready for robots, and are robots ready for us?”
Kevin James Moore is a freelance writer and former United Nations correspondent. Frank Capri is a photojournalist and theoretical astro-physicist based in Manhattan; www.frankcapri.com. Photo by Frank Capri, portrait of Capri by Aya-Kawanaka.