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What Would You Trust a Robot to Do?

We have a family cat but I yearn for a dog to join the Lamb clan. Our two-year-old is on board with the idea but my wife insists — rightly, I concede — that I’m just not home enough to take care of one, especially while our children are so young. It’s a big commitment.


It led me to ponder, why couldn’t a robot be the answer to lend a hand with doggy duties? 

Like me, you might remember the drone dog walkers in Back to the Future II and already have some form of automated device feeding your pets. We’ll soon be putting our own lives in the hands of robots flying aeroplanes or driving cars and trains (some of China’s 350 kmph bullet trains will be going driverless later in 2019).


So why do I feel uneasy about entrusting robots to look after our four-legged friends?

A cartoon image featuring two posters: one advertising dog walking services with a figure and a dog, and another for flying lessons with a plane illustration. Both posters have tear-off tabs at the bottom, set against a bright pink background. A cartoon hand is outstretched ripping off a tab for the flying lessons.

There’s a contradiction here which exposes a gulf between our blind reliance on technology and our trust in it. 


When things go wrong, it’s easy to blame technology — “my alarm clock didn’t go off”, “the printer jammed”, “my computer froze” — but the lack of tangible culpability for technology becomes a real concern when precious possessions, pets or people are at stake.


I trust technology to feed our cat. Timed pet feeders are ingenious inventions that offer convenient solutions for busy or absent households. If the mechanism fails to work you might come home to a grumpy pet, but what’s new there?! On longer trips, I even have a Nest camera pointed at the feeder just to make doubly sure! But in a worst-case scenario our moggy won’t starve and it’s a simple fix to manually feed the feline on returning home. 


But would I trust technology to walk my dog? Absolutely not!


Robot dog walkers could have a 100% success rate for taking prized pooches out for a safe daily stroll and I still wouldn’t commit to it. I’d be intrigued by the mechanics, for sure, but something innate within me baulks at the prospect of “risking” a beloved family pet for the sake of saving an hour or so of my time.


In reality, the risks are surely not dissimilar to that of a human dog walker: traffic, other dogs, squirrels to chase after. And in many ways, a robot designed specifically to walk dogs might actually prove superior to its human counterparts. A robot may have heightened abilities to assess threats based on machine learning, whether it be calculating the speed of oncoming vehicles or determining the temperament of fellow four-legged friends and foes based on visual cues. They may be stronger and faster; more capable of handling big or boisterous breeds. 


But it doesn’t matter. 

A cartoon image of a person and a dog in a park setting.

In the same way that you wouldn’t entrust a robot to watch over your child while you take the other half out for a romantic dinner, you could never be completely confident that a robot would return your furry family member in one piece.


Placing your trust in another person is one of the most complex human interactions there is.


It is not a simple binary decision of “is this person trustworthy: yes or no?” Far from it. Trust is earned based on experience, recommendations, results. Underlying these fundamentals, however, is the “sense” you get for another person. That inexplicable gut feeling you have on meeting someone for the first time — that you’re going to be firm friends in the future, that they’re shady or deceitful, that something’s “not quite right but you can’t put your finger on it”… It’s called intuition, and there’s no place for it within the realms of technology.


Perhaps online dating sites are the best illustration of how big a part intuition plays. There are sites out there — or so I’m told (!) — that match potential suitors based on their likes and dislikes, therefore utilising user data and statistical analysis to determine which two people are most likely to get along. However, liking the same bands and foods, and holding the same beliefs, doesn’t automatically equate to a successful relationship. Sure, you may have lots to talk about and might even get on really well, but no amount of computer data can account for the “magic” which is innate human intuition.  

The same applies to robots. On paper, they may possess all the attributes I would look for in a dog walker or child minder. They may come with glowing recommendations and meet all my requirements around availability, cost and experience, but if I can’t get a feel for who they are then I cannot, in good conscience, entrust my family’s wellbeing to them.  And therein lies the crux of the matter — there is no “who” to get a feel for.  


Computer code cannot instil genuine empathy, tenderness, emotions. It can only programme machines to replicate these expressions of natural behaviours, leading humans to (wisely) err on the side of caution. 

There are no repercussions for robots if things go wrong — they cannot feel pain, guilt or remorse. They are not capable of understanding the deep, emotional gravitas of consequences and therefore are effectively free of all culpability. If my dog were to run into the road and be hit by a car whilst under robot supervision, it would be my fault for entrusting technology with something irreplaceable, and I for one could not live with that reality.


Of course, our relationship with technology is changing all the time. Twenty years ago, we were warned about the dangers of talking to strangers on the internet or getting into strangers’ cars. Now, it’s an everyday occurrence to use the internet to summon strangers in their cars!


For the most part, I can accept the significant role that technology plays in my day-to-day life. I’m more than happy for robots to hoover my house, mow the lawn, make me a cuppa, wake me up, play my music, turn the lights on… One day I may even feel comfortable with the prospect of a robot landing the plane I’m travelling on, or driving the train, or my car. But walking my dog? No, you’ll have to leave that one to me!


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