WE’RE quite used to robots saving our labour in the home – robot vacuum cleaners are no longer the novelty they once were, and, with the internet of everything now established in the zeitgeist, a ‘smart’ telly, boiler or fridge is nearly mundane.
What, though, of our relationships? The effort (just ask my family) I expend on cleaning or cooking is nothing compared to the work I put into the many and varied relationships that surround me, support me, and – yes – sometimes infuriate me.
Which leads me to a key question: if we’ve been able to take the drudgery out of, say, housework; then why not take the infuriation out of our interpersonal relationships?
Esquire magazine has published a fascinating, if troubling, article on the ‘gynoid’ – described in the headline as ‘Hot Lady Robots’ – the ‘ideal’ female robot companion. Naturally, we like our phones, our cars, our possessions to look good – what about our bots? And is this a dangerous process?
As Esquire has it: “When does the aesthetic beauty of a “product”… veer into objectification of a treacherous order?” and “If we create sexualized robotic women, will the control warp our perception of real women?”
You tell me.
Obviously building a whole new ‘person’, or humanoid, is an ambitious undertaking. What about a part, though? Rose Eveleth writes in The Atlantic magazine about developments in the creation of prostheses.
When prostheses were first designed (discounting for the moment ancient, archaeological examples) they were mostly functional and designed for men returning from traumatic wars.
With the advent of new techniques and new thinking, though, some of these restraints were removed. Cue decorative limbs. As The Atlantic would have it, “There are legs made to look like floral porcelain, arms that look like feathered armor, spike legs, arms covered in snakes.”
Floral porcelain hands could be beautiful. Arms covered in snakes would surely draw attention. What, though, if designers sought to enhance function as well as form? Would amputees be stronger? Able to take longer strides?
Eveleth quotes Aimee Mullins (‘one of the first amputees to really think about prosthetics as a question of enhancement rather than replacement’) on children’s attitudes to her ‘disability’, ‘Mullins says that today’s kids don’t question her normalcy the way her peers once did, they don’t see her as disabled at all. “They see a rebuilt body as something powerful. If I’m walking around in carbon fiber or titanium or bionics, standing on a street corner, and some little kid is walking by, they presume power. They want to know if I can fly, how fast I can run.” ‘
Watch Mullins’ inspirational TED Talk from 2009, where she says honestly ‘It’s not fair having 12 pairs of legs.’ She might joke about it, but it’s raises a question we are increasingly confronted with, questions that demands answers. And answers with which we, as a society, must learn to be comfortable.
After all, if millions of Mullinses can be comfortable with what used to be called ‘artificial legs’, then it’s our job to learn how to come to terms with aesthetic and operational bionic prostheses that enhance our lives immeasurably more than a robot vacuum ever could.