Rude robots need a lesson in manners

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 November, 2004, 12:00am

First, the information age spawned netiquette: good manners for netizens, rooted in the principle that you should never e-mail abuse to strangers with the caps lock on, or snidely liken them to Adolf Hitler.

Now, we have 'robotiquette', which means social protocol for those semi-smart machines starting to make inroads into society.

The concept was concocted by scientists at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain as part of the European Cogniron robotics project devoted to the development of tinheads with subtlety.

According to head scientist Kerstin Dautenhahn, robots must learn 'that humans are individuals, have preferences and come from different cultural backgrounds. And I want robots to treat humans as human beings, and not like other robots'.

Maybe Mr Dautenhahn is justified in trying to give automata this finishing school treatment. I have yet to meet a robot so polished that it made me feel I could sit beside it in a restaurant (and leave it pick up the tab).

Just look at Robosapien. True, this plaything built by Hong Kong-based Wow Wee has much to be proud of. For one thing, it was designed by former Nasa whiz Mark Tilden, whose credits include autonomous satellite controllers and lunar rovers.

For another, it is wildly popular. Voted Britain's Toy of the Year, it supposedly delights children of both sexes and males in their 20s.

But Robosapien will disturb those users who like their gadgets sophisticated in the full sense of the word. When not launching kung fu kicks, Robosapien farts and burps like Bender the robot on television cartoon series, Futurama. In addition, it grunts like a hog and raps, after a fashion.

Blame Isaac Asimov. When Asimov devised his Three Laws of Robotics before automata had even emerged, he failed to foresee the advent of the hi-tech yob. All he thought to rule out was acts of harm rather than rudeness. The sideburned seer should have added some kind of anti-lout clause.

Instead, we have Mr Dautenhahn's strange therapy based on teaching robots to play 'pass-the-parcel', which seems a curious choice. Sure, the game is less aggressive than, say, musical chairs, where the pushiest member in a group gets to occupy the lone throne at the end. But pass-the-parcel is all about thrusting an object onto your neighbour like a hot potato: hardly a recipe for good manners, which are notoriously hard to define anyway because they vary so much depending on context.

How do you train a robot to treat a Japanese octogenarian or a 20-year-old Caucasian who speaks in Blinglish like ?Ali G? How do you teach it to speak to anyone who is feeling prickly or short on polite conversation after losing a loved one?

Mr Dautenhahn may well be right in predicting it could take 20 years before robots learn to interact with us smoothly. It may take forever.

Meanwhile, to discourage the rise of more artificial sociopaths, Technopedia offers its guidelines on protocol.

1. A robot may not break wind - even if there are children or easily entertained 23-year-old males in the room.

2. A robot may not grunt and try out its Jet Li moves, even if its owner disrespects it by treating it like a high-maintenance doll.

3. A robot should not be allowed to rap, even when in the presence of a hot 'roboho' such as Goldie from the Australian firm Kadence Photonics.

Once this code of conduct becomes established, robots will be ready to become part of the family.

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