Written By Leslie Koh, Singapore
She’s a robot created by scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who doesn’t look like C-3PO, R2-D2 or BB-8 (you wish). In fact, she has been billed as “the world’s most human-like robot”. And the news reports aren’t exaggerating.
She’s got soft skin, flowing hair, an animated face . . . and wrinkles. Her makers didn’t fashion her after an American Top Model or Korean pop star, with perfect curves and a flawless face. In fact, she looks like any other middle-aged Caucasian woman. And that’s the scary thing. She actually looks human—ordinarily human.
(Google photos or videos for Nadine, and you’ll see what we mean.)
But what makes Nadine eerie is that she has been designed to behave like a human. Apart from being able to recognize, greet, and talk to people (nowadays, that’s standard humanoid stuff), this intelligent robot even has a temper. Yes, she’s been built with a personality and mood. She can get happy or sad, or even angry if you insult her. And that’s where it really gets scary. All these features are meant to allow Nadine to act as a caretaker and social companion to people, say, kids or elderly people.
After all those years of futurist fantasies of robots taking over the world, we’re finally starting to see a glimpse of what technology can achieve. It would seem that robots will not only take over our jobs in manufacturing, but also in the “softer” services such as nursing, caring, and teaching. One day, perhaps, people may relate to and rely on Nadine 2.0 as if she’s really human. Or they may not even be able to tell the difference.
Our key achievement is that we’ve not only managed to mimic human intelligence and abilities—think artificial intelligence and robotics—but we’re also learning to program emotions and character in a machine. We’re getting closer and closer to understanding, and replicating, what it means to be human.
The question is, of course, will we get there one day? Will we be able to create a humanoid that has all the attributes of a homo sapien, so much so that there is little discernible difference between human and machine?
Before you rush to reply, “Of course not”, take a minute to think about it. We used to say, the difference between humans and robots is that robots can’t think or analyze. Then came artificial intelligence. We then took comfort in the fact that robots couldn’t possibly feel emotions, or have a bad day. Well, here’s Nadine.
It would be ambitious to try to predict how far technology will go, or presumptuous to say that it won’t. So perhaps the bigger question we could ask ourselves is: What does it really mean to be human?
Clearly, it’s more than superior intellect or emotions. Or even a personality. Nadine has those. Feelings, you say? Well, you could just about convince people you like them even when you don’t, with the right programmed actions and words. Ability to make decisions? Chances are, Nadine 2.0 will be able to do that, with help from advanced artificial intelligence and some nifty software. Like Deep Blue, the computer that once beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, a humanoid could be taught to assess all the data and scenarios and compute the most sensible decision.
But would Nadine 3.0 be able to handle . . . ethics?
Human beings have a moral code programmed into us from birth. We have an instinctive sense of right versus wrong, though this can differ from person to person, or culture to culture. When we make certain significant decisions, we not only weigh the pros and cons and balance the short- and long-term implications, but we also take into consideration the ethics of the issue. We not only ask, “Is this good for us?”, but we also think, “Is this right?”
That is why humans can make decisions that don’t make sense, yet which we applaud. A driver who stops at the red light, even though there are no other cars and no cameras. A parent who quits a promising career to take care of a child. A man with great potential who sacrifices his life for a friend who has none.
Perhaps that’s why God didn’t make robots instead of flawed humans, even though it would have saved Him a lot of trouble, what with all the issues of sin, disobedience, and rebellion.
God, being a God of love, wanted to give His creation a real choice to love Him back—or to reject Him. Only when there is real free will, is there real love.
A humanoid, on the other hand, no matter how advanced or human-like, would not be able to make a choice based on good versus evil, right versus wrong. Told to avoid the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, a machine would obey Him simply because its calculations would show that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil involved 100% risk of death, whereas the fruit from the other 1,000,000 trees had 0% risk. Disobey God? It just wouldn’t compute.
In the same way, an army of Nadines would keep God company only because they were programmed to do so, with the appropriate gestures and words, or because they relied on Him to charge their batteries. They wouldn’t seek a relationship with God because they wanted to.
The God of love made us with free will and choice, so that we can choose to love Him back and place our faith in Him not because it makes sense, but because it is the right thing to do, and because we want to. That’s something a humanoid cannot do. And it’s what makes us truly human.