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The ‘Robot Psychiatrist’ - Raising Robot Awareness with Satire and Compassion
Daniel Faggella   Sep 16, 2015   Ethical Technology  

Dr. Joanne Pransky calls herself a Robot Psychiatrist. Raising an eyebrow or feeling the beginnings of a smirk?  Good, that’s the point - it’s been her tongue-in-cheek way of calling attention to what she sees as the inevitable reality that humans will eventually need to interact with robots, intellectually and emotionally.

She has been championing awareness since the 1980s and has playfully worked to keep the reality of robots in the public eye, from appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno to the Discovery Channel and a host of other media outlets.

Distinguishing Fact from Fiction

The media’s perspective on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) seems to lean on the optimistic at times, then just as suddenly swings to the negative end of the spectrum. In this polarized world, I asked Joanne in a recent interview if there is anything that she likes about the way media portrays AI. “I like an accurate depiction and thought-provoking discussion…I’ve spent a lot of time bashing negative headlines, for example ‘robot kills human’, when actually the human killed itself by not following safety standards”, she remarks.

Dr. Pranksy believes that the main problem with robotics in the United States has to do with a mostly uninformed public facing a surge of new publicity in the industry. “Humans are ignorant at the moment,” she comments. It’s almost a fact that people too often believe everything that they read without considering multiple contexts, and in much of the main media landscape it’s safe to say many walk away with a negative depiction of the future of robotics. The way to lead people down the right path, says Joanne, is for the media to publicize robotics in a way that promotes balanced facts alongside potential future outcomes and promotes thoughtful debate.

For the past 30 years, Dr. Pranksy has tried to show robots to masses. “If a picture is worth a million words, a video is worth a billion,” she remarks. This includes not just a staged robot that is either all good or all bad, but also a robot that is “growing” out of its failures. She mentions Boston Dynamics’ ‘BigDog’ project and notes that when someone is kicking the quadraped robot on film, the media might just as easily lash out at the human “abusing the robot”. Unless well-informed, few people take enough time to consider that this is what the robot is designed to do, to be subjected to the elements, and that scientists want to find its weaknesses in order to make it more successful.

If she had it her way, Dr. Pranksy would see more of what she loves to do i.e. taking a robot currently used or on the market and bringing it into a new environment to encourage a new application. Telepresence, or virtual reality technology, might be primarily medical or military now, but Joanne sees these as “game changers” for other industries. The interesting part, she notes, is observing the interactions between robots and humans in these new instances, in turn documenting the failures and successes, which helps shape future use.

I Spy with my Spotlight Eye

A recent phenomenon that has taken off is the exploration of human and robot relationships in film, including the movies Her and Ex Machina. This leads me to my next question - are Science Fiction films fruitful in proliferating ethical conversation around the topic of robotics and AI?

“This is what a robotic psychiatrist dreams about - what is it like to have a robot be a nanny, a lover, etc. - they’re inevitable - whether they occur as you see (on film) in our lifetime is a different question,” Joanne remarks. In her view, it’s a question of how not when. Her career (robot psychiatrist) is ‘sci-fi’, but one day there really may be a need for robot psychiatrists.

What about defining a robot - are there media avenues that do this well? If you ask a roboticist what a robot is, she muses, you are likely to get different answers based on context. “I try to call out misuse of the word robot,” she says, “It’s still a catch-all - everything is a robot.” One thing that she is not sure about is whether documentaries or science shows that illuminate the reality of robots really capture the attention of much of the public.

Let’s face it; most television audiences would rather watch BattleBots (Joanne was an official judge on the show) which she still deems beneficial because it generates some level of discussion. “In terms of TV and shows…I love Humans (which really focuses on humanoids) and I think some online publications, like Robotic Trends that covers the news in robotics are good sources,” says Joanne. Nevertheless, there is clearly room for more accurate and entertaining depictions of the scope of the industry.

Sounding the Alarm Pre-Catastrophe

It’s not all show biz. The media’s recent coverage of military efforts in developing autonomous drones and robotic weapons is capturing a swath of attention, and much of it is negative. Joanne thinks that it’s great that this topic is getting coverage so that discussions can be had now. “The word autonomous is again a catch-all; they (the public) thinks without human supervision, but we need to clarify.” Autonomous does not necessarily mean 100 percent unsupervised; in fact, humans presently supervise all military “autonomous” weapons.

“I could toss back case after case of a pilot who commits suicide, or a cop who kills a civilian, but I will say this instead - that when it comes to humans, the most important thing is not the future of intelligence of AI, it is social intelligence and emotional intelligence.” This is the topic about which Dr. Pransky is perhaps most passionate. “If we’re going to be working with AI, and if we can’t get it right between ourselves, how are we going to get it right with non-biological entities?” She believes there should be much more emphasis, particularly in the education of our youth, on moral law and Kohlberg’s laws of judgment and stages of morality.

There seems to exist an unfortunate pattern within human nature i.e. until something catastrophic occurs or is imminently threatening, we don’t respond as well or as quickly as we should. Will we be able to draw enough attention to topics without the “big and bad” happening?

Joanne believes that the situation does not have to be so doomsday. Human beings are also just as capable of detecting early warning signs and identifying potential problems. “Just last week”, she remarks, “the computers stopped United Airlines on the same day that they stopped the Stock Market - we paid attention a little bit more and started asking questions…were we hacked? Is this programming? Was it terrorism? Is it an issue of security?” Those are alarms, but they are not necessarily dooming, says Joanne.

“Even 10 years ago, I’m like oh my god, I can’t believe marriage between genders is even an issue, because I’m thinking about humans and a robot!” Joanne quips. “I certainly started (my interest in robotics) out of tremendous fear and concern; we just have to hope that by bringing these discussions more (into the limelight), that we will do more as a society.”

In a more perfect world, we will do so before the curtain starts to close.

Daniel Faggella is the founder of TechEmergence, and blogs at

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