I Spy with a little AI, by Sophie Cameron

Published on: 03 September 2023

Can the way we treat artificial intelligence show us how human we are? Sophie Cameron, author of Our Sister, Again, explores the possibilities... 

Sophie Cameron and the cover of Our Sister, AgainSophie Cameron and the cover of Our Sister, Again

What would you do?

Several years ago, I saw a YouTube video of a teenager playing I-Spy with a robot called Robovie. The pair have fun spotting objects around the room, and after making a correct guess, Robovie even asks the boy for a hug. But halfway through the second round, an adult comes into the room and says that the game is over and Robovie will now be stored away in the cupboard. Robovie says this isn’t fair, as they haven’t finished playing yet.

“Please don’t put me in the closet,” it says. “I’m scared of being in the closet!” 

What would you do in this situation? Would you stick up for Robovie? Or would you remind yourself that while robots sometimes seem to act very similarly to humans, they are machines and don’t experience emotions like we do?

The Robovie experiment was part of a study by the University of Washington in the United States, which aimed to find out how much empathy children aged between 9 and 15 felt for machines like Robovie that can perform human actions like talking, hugging or playing I-Spy. Most of the children who took part said that it wasn’t right for the researcher to have stopped Robovie’s turn in the game. The vast majority believed Robovie was intelligent, and a large number said it should be paid for its work too. Around a third of participants even thought Robovie should be allowed to vote!

This study was one of several things that inspired Our Sister, Again, my novel about a family who are given the chance to have their oldest daughter Flora back in the form of a super-realistic robot three years after she dies. At first, Flora’s sisters Isla and Una are convinced that this AI replica is an exact copy of the old Flora, but soon the differences between their human sister and the mechanic replacement become more and more obvious – the new Flora doesn’t need to eat or sleep, is able to calculate huge sums as fast as a computer, and can learn an entire language in a few minutes. Eventually, both Flora and her family are forced to question if she can be considered a person at all.

How would you treat a robot?

What I find interesting about this topic isn’t so much the technology behind AI itself, but how we humans react to it. Watching the footage from the University of Washington’s experiment, I found myself feeling quite sad for Robovie. On one hand, I know logically that when a robot says it’s scared or upset, it can’t really mean it – Robovie is simply a machine that has been programmed to respond to different situations in different ways.

On the other hand, I think it’s natural for us to respond to objects that look or sound like people in an empathetic or emotional way. Have you ever heard someone say “please” or “thank you” when asking a question to Siri or Alexa? There’s no real person behind their words, and yet over half of users speak to them in the way they would to other humans.

I always talk politely to the voicebot in my car, but I’ve never said “thank you” to my toaster or microwave.

I began writing Our Sister, Again in 2020, and in the past few years AI has come on in leaps and bounds. It’s still far away from being able to think like a real person, but it may well get there one day. If so, should robots be allowed to have rights? In 2017 a robot named Sophia was granted citizenship of Saudi Arabia, so in a way some already do. Maybe we’ll even see countries with robot presidents or prime ministers one day!

While Our Sister, Again doesn’t have any answers to these big questions, I hope it encourages readers to think about how much we can and should treat robots like humans, and what the future might look for us all if we do.

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