While many have argued that the biggest problem facing humanity is our growing inability to communicate, MIT seems to think that our first interactions with household robots should be predicated on passive aggression and silent judgement. Robotics scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a “robot servant” named Baxter that can read its owners brain waves and tell when they’re displeased with the job its doing and correct its behavior accordingly. Conveniently, you don’t even need to talk to this poor machine, as it can be controlled by simple hand gestures.
Baxter can sense your simmering rage through electrodes placed on the scalp, and can sense very subtle gestures through more electrodes on your forearm. MIT says that they want to remove the machine constraints on human-robot interfacing and that their goal is to “to develop robotic systems that are a more natural and intuitive extension of us.”
In the latest demonstration, MIT demonstrated Baxter’s ability to use a drill on three possible targets. The operator sits behind the robot wearing the electrode skull-cap and arm band. Baxter, outfitted with what looks like an iPad displaying a smiley face for extra creep factor, autonomously goes to stick the drill into one of the targets. Sensing the operator’s displeasure, Baxter asks for assistance. With a quick flick of the wrist, the operator shows Baxter how to do a better job. One question remains though: what happens when Baxter turns on the operator and puts that drill right through their impossibly high demands?
MIT clearly doesn’t think this is a problem, as one of the main points of this demonstration was to show that Baxter can be used by anyone immediately. There’s no need to train Baxter to read a person’s specific brainwaves, so once the technology is commercially viable, Baxter can be bossed around on a whim simply by putting on the cap and arm band.
There is a good hopeful use for this robot. Because Baxter is so easily controlled, MIT says that the robot will be useful for assisting the elderly, those with physical disabilities, or even people struggling behind a language barrier. That’s definitely the right use for robots. Anything that allows people robbed of agency by circumstance get control over their lives back is objectively a good thing, and if that’s the path we’re going down then bravo, MIT.
But don’t think we’re ending this on a high note. Here’s what PhD candidate Joseph DelPreto and lead author of the latest paper on Baxter says about the technology:
“By looking at both muscle and brain signals, we can start to pick up on a person’s natural gestures along with their snap decisions about whether something is going wrong.
This helps make communicating with a robot more like communicating with another person.”
Yes, just like communicating with a human: unexpressed resentment and patronizing hand gestures. What better way to usher in the horrifying future we’re eagerly wading into than to make the first “robot servant”—insert your own synonym for “robot servant” there—feed into our secret narcissistic want to have things change based on our split-second emotional reactions without that irksome and apparently passé step of verbalizing how we feel in a half-way cogent manner.