Robot skin 201910
A dystopian future in which humans are entirely replaced by robots has been envisaged in many books and movies Image Credit: Supplied

Something about the recent news item that a Google engineer was suspended after claiming that an artificial intelligence application — that he helped to develop — had become sentient, fascinated me. Years ago I had a similar, albeit a somewhat more conventional experience in Japan. More on that later.

In case of the Google development, the engineer actually released transcripts of conversations with the AI, called LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), in which it appears to express fears of being switched off, talks about how it feels happy and sad and attempts to form bonds with humans by mentioning situations that it could never have actually experienced.

Six years ago on a trip to Japan, I came across a fully functional, artistic robot for the first time. I had read about robots till then and also watched documentaries on how robots in Japan are part of the nation’s industrial infrastructure and even domestic plan.

Therefore, I wasn’t completely surprised when I engaged with a range of robots — humanoid entertainment robots, animal robots, social robots, guard robots, and many more.

In fact Japan has the highest number of industrial robots in the world. Thanks to its high-tech infrastructure, and advances in automation, the country has been able to greatly reduce its high labour costs over the years.

A robotic violinist

So I met with a robotic violinist. Incidentally, it was the highlight of my trip to the Toyota Motor Corporation. The company had just introduced a humanoid robot and it was all over the press.

Not sure of what to make of a machine making music, I walked into the glass-panelled Toyota building. A small crowd had already gathered there.

One gentleman, who spoke falteringly in English, whispered that the he had heard the violin played by a group of musical robots. “It is better than a human violinist,” he smiled.

In the performance hall, I noticed the five feet tall robot vionilist. It displayed an amazing ability and played the violin with its arm and 17 computer-controlled joints and flexible fingers.

A robot playing a violin can be challenging because the instrument is quite complicated. But our musical robot was playing without a care in the world. I was left with a mix of amazement and wonder.

Over the years the Japanese have further improved these robots. In 2016, a Japanese musical band was made up entirely of robots. They performed at a packed concert during a music festival in Hong Kong.

All this circles us back to the core belief of whether machines and services will become more automated as we continue our technological march.

Already we see more humans are becoming replaceable in their lines of work, including those in the creative industry. Robotics has advanced and now there are beings that can create works of art from sight, leading to the million dollar question: Is artificial intelligence going to improve our artistic and musical abilities to such an extent that they make human art obsolete?

The answer to that is complicated and we are no way close to a situation where the robot music industry, for instance, is replacing humankind’s artistic and natural talent for music and art.

A dystopian future in which humans are entirely replaced by robots has been envisaged in many books and movies, yes, but here is my two bits: A much more likely scenario is one in which robots work alongside humans to improve their work — be it in the creative space or at an industrial level.

As far as the Google engineer is concerned, I think it may simply be a case of him projecting his own emotions and sentience onto the robot. I would imagine that’s what’s happening here.

It potentially — maybe a few years or a decade from now — might be the case, but most people would agree that there’s still a very long way to go.

Ahmad Nazir is a UAE-based freelancer writer