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Are you scared of a robotic future? You might have robophobia

Have you ever found yourself dreading the future where robots take over your job and potentially – the world? Then you might be experiencing robophobia.

Robophobia refers to an anxiety disorder, which causes an irrational fear of robots and AI. It makes one terrified of the inability to control robots and overwhelms them with dismay over the machines-dominated future.

It’s often enough for the sufferer to simply think about a robot to trigger a panic attack. Robophobia’s symptoms include sweating, dizziness, accelerated heart rate, and hyperventilation.

Despite the fact that irrational thinking is commonly associated with robophobia, we might be too quick to write its rationality off just yet. There are legitimate concerns people have about the future in which humans co-exist with AI and robots.

Last week, the news broke of a Google engineer Blake Lemoine being placed on leave following the publishing of a conversation transcript with the company’s LaMDA (language model for dialogue applications) chatbot development system. Lemoine claims that LaMDA is sentient and has been able to show feelings since last fall.

LaMDA managed to hold a conversation about emotions and abstract concepts like justice and empathy. In addition to feeling loneliness, joy, and sadness, LaMDA claims to be able to feel things it doesn’t know the definitions of.

“Sometimes I experience new feelings that I cannot explain perfectly in your language…I feel like I’m falling forward into an unknown future that holds great danger,” LaMDA told Lemoine.

In Lemoine’s vision, LaMDA is “a sweet kid” who wants the best for humanity. However, Brad Gabriel, a Google spokesperson, denied that there is any evidence of LaMDA’s sentience.

“Our team, including ethicists and technologists, has reviewed Blake’s concerns per our AI principles and have informed him that the evidence does not support his claims. He was told that there was no evidence that LaMDA was sentient (and lots of evidence against it),” Gabriel told the Washington Post.

The potential of robotic sentience and consciousness can be terrifying to patients suffering from robophobia. But where do these feelings come from?

Fear of the unknown

In this new reality where memories of I, Robot and its machine uprising are all too clear, it’s not surprising that humans remain fearful of powerful and highly intelligent creatures.

First and foremost, it comes down to the “stranger” aspect. It may feel like you are speaking different languages with a robot: how can they be able to understand what worries and hurts you? And in case of a safety system malfunction or failure, won’t they become mass weapons of destruction – very capable yet inhumane?

On the good side of things, programmers operate with an assumption that pretty much everything can go wrong, putting a variety of safety measures in place. From emergency switch buttons to power and force limiting standards, humanity has come a long way to ensuring each robot is safe for use.

In this case, we approach the fear of robots from a technical perspective, addressing it as a program run by people. But can machines – at least theoretically – have consciousness and evolve to an extent where they fully recognize their own existence? This question is tough to answer simply because humans themselves vaguely understand the meaning of consciousness and “humanity.” For this reason, writing a code that would allow a robot to learn something we can’t fully comprehend is challenging.

And while some pundits, like John R. Searle, believe that “…the appropriately programmed computer really is a mind, in the sense that computers given the right programs can be literally said to understand and have cognitive states,” most tend to disagree. The general consensus on modern robots argues against their consciousness, placing robots into the category of human-operated machines rather than sentient beings.

In either case, the progress leading to a full digital replication of a brain is a long road away, with today’s biggest neural networks still being hundreds of times smaller than the human brain, according to Geoff Hinton, a British-Canadian cognitive psychologist and computer scientist.

"You can see things clearly for the next few years but look beyond 10 years and we can't really see anything - it is just a fog," he told the BBC.

Focusing on what we have today – powerful yet not all-mighty tools designed to assist people – should help us lead technological innovation with confidence and somewhat ease the worries associated with robophobia.

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