Mental Floss

4 Misconceptions About Robots

Justin Dodd
Don't fear the robots.
Don't fear the robots. / ThomasVogel/istock via Getty Images

Who would win in the ultimate robo deathmatch? A T-800, C3PO, or The Iron Giant? It’s a trick question—these robots are all fictional and this would never happen. But robots are a very real part of the modern world, in everything from car factories to vacuum cleaners. Let’s take a look at a few misconceptions about robots, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: Robotics and AI are the same thing.

These two fields often get lumped together. While the Venn diagram definitely features plenty of overlap, there are important distinctions.

Robotics involves the study and design of machines that can carry out tasks. According to NASA, “Robotics is the study of robots. Robots are machines that can be used to do jobs. Some robots can do work by themselves. Other robots must always have a person telling them what to do.”

Basically, they’re finely tuned machines that help assemble cars or your operate your Roomba. Robots aren’t necessarily humanoid in design—any robot that resembles a human should probably be considered an android. And, while we’re on the subject, a cyborg is different from an android. A cyborg is an organism, often a human being, with robotic enhancements.

Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is a term that “is frequently applied to the project of developing systems endowed with the intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, or learn from past experience,” according to Britannica. AI is coding and programming. Think Watson, the supercomputer who crushes opponents on Jeopardy!, or even Siri on your iPhone.

In the middle of that Venn diagram, however, is Sophia. This social robot with AI functionality, designed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, was named the first Innovation Champion by the UN Development Programme. She also has Saudi citizenship. She can hold conversations, make realistic facial expressions, and casually drop eerie quips. When asked if humans should be scared of robots, Sophia responded, “Someone said ‘we have nothing to fear but itself.’ What did he know?” Yikes.

Many relatively simple robots are now being designed to incorporate elements of artificial intelligence. But calling a basic robot vacuum—which is still designed to do one task, over and over—artificially intelligent is pushing it.

2. Misconception: Robots are a modern concept.

'The Automaton Chess Player', 1845.
A 19th-century illustration shows an automaton—an early kind of robot—playing chess. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The word robot, in reference to automatons, was first used in 1920 by a Czech playwright in a piece called Rossum’s Universal Robots. But robots have been around a lot longer than a century.

Some historians think that the first robot was made by Archytas, a Greek mathematician who lived around 400 BCE. He invented a wooden bird that was capable of flight, possibly through the use of steam power. Jumping ahead to the mid-16th century, a mathematician who worked for Emperor Charles V built a fully functioning automaton. Resembling a monk, this 15-inch wooden and iron figurine could walk around, strike his chest, raise a cross, and move his head—all on its own, more or less. It had workings similar to those of a clock.

If these creations seem less than impressive, consider Leonardo da Vinci’s robot. In 1495, Leonardo made designs for a functioning, humanoid automaton knight. It could sit, stand, move its arms, and function entirely by a series of pulleys and cables. It even had a working jaw. It’s not known if Leonardo ever built it, but since the discovery of the design, the knight has been constructed using the original plans—and it does, in fact, work.

3. Misconception: Robots are evil.

Robot and Helpless Maiden on film poster
A French poster for the 1951 science fiction movie 'The Day the Earth Stood Still" / Found Image Holdings Inc/GettyImages

It seems like every single piece of sci-fi ever made has tried to warn us about this exact scenario. We make an army of robots, their AI teaches them that humans are obsolete and/or bad, and they wipe out humanity. I, Robot; Terminator; The Matrix—these movies all seem pretty clear in their message.

One explanation for our fear of robot overlords might be the Uncanny Valley theory. Masahiro Mori, a roboticist, developed this theory back in 1970. It proposes a relationship between the look of artificial humanoids and how terribly uncomfortable they make us. In general, the theory goes, the more something like a robot resembles a human, the more we grow fond of it. But at some point in that progression we reach the “valley” where our brains say, “this is not right.” Some say that at that point the object starts to seem more like something distinctly un-lifelike, like a corpse. Others say its near-accuracy makes us more aware of the tiny flaws that eventually reveal themselves in its mimicry. Whatever the mechanism, the effect is an uncomfortable one. 

fMRI readings have shown that our prefrontal cortex and amygdala——brain areas partially associated with executive function and phobias, respectively—are activated when we feel creeped out by robot humanoids. But the scientific literature tells a complex story. Multiple studies have shown that we feel empathy for robots we perceive to be in pain. When shown videos of a human woman and a robot dinosaur being hurt, participants in a 2013 study showed similar cognitive reactions to both. And our robot-empathy extends beyond physical pain. In a 2016 study, when a robot expressed regret about “mistakes” it had made earlier in the experiment, subjects actually felt bad for it. They graded the robot less harshly than they did a robot that showed no “emotion.”

So if our fear and empathy towards robots are both natural, then why are we so scared of evil robots? Professor of psychology Iris Berent ascribes our unease to cognitive dissonance. When human beings encounter the world, we can neatly divide things between inanimate objects and “living agents.” A basketball is an unthinking object, subject to the laws of physics, while a person or cat has motivations—they can start to move because they decide to. Robots complicate this binary.

As Berent points out, our discomfort when confronted with these messy boundaries seems to predate our modern fear of robots. Think about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, or the golem from Jewish folklore. The monsters in both stories are made from inanimate materials but achieve a kind of sentience, and in both cases they rebel against their creator. (There’s a great variety of golem stories out there, and this particular structure I outlined only applies to some of them.) 

Frankenstein, especially, seems to encode within its story an anxiety about the danger of scientific discovery. From splitting the atom to the Internet, human history is littered with examples of technological progress bringing with it devastating consequences, intended and otherwise. 

It’s reasonable to think that advances in robotics could come with similar drawbacks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean some kind of nightmarish Skynet scenario. Robots probably aren’t going to walk down the streets, rounding up people and shoving them into human zoos. But they could pose threats to things like personal privacy and security, democracy, and the future of our economy. These are real fears, but they aren’t as exciting as a sci-fi war, so it makes sense that they get less screen time.

Berent sums up our fear of the robot rebellion: 

“When we focus so much of our attention on improbable scenarios, we run the risk of ignoring other problems posed by AI that are pressing and preventable. Before we can give those very real dangers the attention they deserve, we should rein in our irrational fears that arise from within.”

4. Misconception: Robots will take away all our jobs.

While fears of robots violently taking over the world are mostly grounded in science fiction, fears of robots taking over the workforce are not so farfetched. Being replaced by a more efficient, cheaper, and less-litigious robotic worker is a very real concern in the modern age.

Robots already have replaced human workers in many industries. From agriculture to manufacturing, many jobs that were once done by humans are now done by robots. And this is not a new concept. Innovation has always led to a restructuring of the workforce. The invention of the assembly line made some factory jobs obsolete, just as the invention of the Xerox machine did in the office.

An ATM is literally an automated teller machine—it was designed to do the job of a human bank teller. But, interestingly, research shows that the number of bank tellers did not get reduced to zero because of these machines, but rather has stayed fairly steady. The savings that ATMs provided allowed banks to open new branches, which required the hiring of more people. The impact of innovation on employment is rarely black and white.

But robotics and AI have gotten to a point where it seems like most jobs are going to have artificial replacements in the next few decades. Should we be concerned? Some groups say that there’s nothing to worry about because the loss of jobs will be offset by the creation of new ones. According to the World Economic Forum, 85 million jobs globally will be disrupted due to automation. But, in response, by their estimate, 97 million new jobs will emerge.

But even if these projections are right, it doesn’t address a chief concern: that many people will not have the proper skills, training, or interest in these new tech jobs. If an administrative office worker or fast-food cashier gets replaced, they probably can’t just hop into a job in robotics. The key will be for individual companies, unions, governments, and other organizations to support workers during this transition—and perhaps even into a future where employment is much rarer than it is today. 

“In the future, we will see the most competitive businesses are the ones that have invested heavily in their human capital—the skills and competencies of their employees,” Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the WEF, said.

Of course, there are some jobs that humans will always be better equipped to do. At least … for a long time. Jobs that require social intelligence and creativity, or jobs that don’t take place in a very organized setting like a warehouse or factory, should be particularly difficult to automate. We’re not going to wake up tomorrow in a jobless world run by machines, but the future is far from certain. What will the economy of the future look like, when robots and computers can do tasks that would have seemed impossible a generation ago? What are the drawbacks of efficiency, if any? What’s the role of work in human life? Frank and sometimes difficult conversations will need to happen, and it will be humans, not robots, who need to have them. For now.