Human or machine?

Should we make robots more human-like? A hit Swedish TV show has a say

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Credit: Real Humans

Although we may be decades away from building truly life-like humanoid robots, it is never too early to start questioning the legal and ethical implications of creating machines that are hard to tell apart from ourselves. In a brave leap of imagination, Real Humans, a popular Swedish TV show, written by Lars Lundstroem, deliberately blurs the line between humans and robots to explore what it means to be human.

The show, which could have been inspired by Hiroshi Ishiguro’s weirdest dream, is set in an alternative present-day Sweden, where extremely life-like androids with perfect looks called “hubots” are commercialised` to take care of all domestic and workplace drudgery.

With time, some hubots are programmed to acquire free will and become capable of entering into social and even intimate relations with humans. The story follows the emotional effects on two families in possession of hubots as well as the trials and tribulations of a group of hubots that decide to fight for their rights.

Real Humans has received a positive critical acclaim, even though it has been repeatedly characterised as creepy and disturbing, which in fact seems to be part of the writers’ intention. The premise of the show allows the creators to explore diverse philosophical questions as well as contemporary social issues.

Although the creators of the show claim that there was no science to rely on in the making of Real Humans, it is remarkable how the show’s vision resonates with some of the statements made recently by the mentioned Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro during the presentation of his latest creations, two eerily human-looking robot newscasters Kodomoroid and Otonaroid. “Making androids is about exploring what it means to be human,” Ishiguro explained to reporters, “examining the question of what emotion is, what awareness is, what thinking is.”

Kodomoroid and Otenaroid during the demonstration last month

Hiroshi Ishiguro’s latest androids Kodomoroid and Otenaroid during the demonstration last month

Just like the creators of Real Humans, robotics researchers, such as Ishiguro, warn of possible legal and ethical complications that may arise when humans and robots form stronger bonds, especially if the latter look and behave like us. Most of the present-day robots look deliberately artificial, but there is no reason why it has to remain so once the technology becomes available to make them look human.

Real Humans was released in 2012 and screened in at least 50 other countries with great success. Now the show is to be remade in English, with the premiere scheduled for 2015.

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