Humans and Androids as Societal Partners

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Note: the following essay was originally published in the San Francisco Examiner on Sunday, January 11, 2043. The writer, Margo Cassidy, is currently a graduate student in the newly created noetics program at Stanford University. This essay is reprinted here with permission.

Humans and Androids as Societal Partners
by Margo Cassidy

Five years hence… I’m walking hand in hand with my boyfriend, Matt. He’s tall, he can look over the top of my head without trying. He’s athletic, and handsome. Oh, my god, he’s handsome. As we step up to the entrance of Chez Roberto, the doorman welcomes us in.

I’m all smiles because Matt made a reservation at the newest, trendiest eatery within fifty miles.  His eyes sparkle as he says, “I wanted to surprise you, Margo. Happy birthday.” And I love him now even more than ever, if that is possible.

(Image by S K from Pixabay)

A waiter meets us inside. He’s a servbot class android as handsome as Matt. The two of them, the waiter and Matt, make eye contact but don’t say anything. They’re exchanging information. It’s just something bots do.

When we’re seated, I glance through the menu. I order filet mignon with mushrooms Bordelaise.  “And for you, sir?” the waiter asks Matt.

“I’ll have Icelandic glacier water,” Matt replies without taking his eyes off me. I’m a little surprised. Usually Matt orders lithia water. He loves the bitter taste. As if reading my thoughts, he says, “I hear glacier water is in a class of its own. I thought I’d give it a try.”

Is this merely a school girl’s fantasy? Not entirely. In the near future, within just a few years, noetic androids like Matt will be an integral part of society. We are very close to a new societal paradigm in which noetics and humans will coexist, walking hand in hand, sometimes literally.

The notion of a humaniform android like Matt is not a new idea, but has appeared in many novels, films, and popular television programs. One of the first writers to use the term ‘android’ was the French author Auguste Villers de L’Isle-Adam in his sci-fi novel L’Ève Future, published in 1886. In this story a fictionalized Thomas Edison creates a female android that looks and acts convincingly human. Edison does this at the request of a close friend, Lord Ewald, who has become disenchanted by his fiancée, Alicia, and wishes to replace her with a perfect artificial version of her, an android with none of Alicia’s supposed faults. Unfortunately for Lord Ewald, the ship bringing android Alicia to England was lost in a storm at sea.

In 1925, German writer Thea von Harbou published a serialized work in the magazine Illustriertes Blatt titled Metropolis. The story, set in the year 2025, features a female android, the maschinenmensch (literally “machine human”). Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the Metropolis gynoid is never given a name. In 1927, von Harbou’s story was made into the film of which film buffs are well familiar. Filmologists credit the visual depiction of von Harbou’s android character as having had a major influence on robot literature and cinematography.

The notion of creating an android to replace a disappointing spouse or lover was again taken up in the 1972 novel The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin. In this story, the men of the town of Stepford replace (in the darkest meaning) their troublesome wives with submissive android doubles. In 1975, the novel was translated into a sci-fi film that was controversial at the time, but which now enjoys a cult status among my fellow students in Stanford’s robotics department. The Stepford Wives raises an intriguing ethical question: if androids are developed to the degree that they could replace humans in intimate relationships, or in society at large, should we allow this?

Apart from literature and film, the history of robotics in the United States has been a checkered one. Beginning about 1975, robotic manufacturing machines appeared. Those first ones were large, massive, and expensive, but the costs were offset as the robotic machines were able to perform specific manufacturing tasks, such as welding and painting automobile unibody structures, with great efficiency. Over the course of a generation or so, robotic manufacturing machines replaced an increasing number of humans on the shop floor. On the whole, however, the robot takeover of the workplace was a fairly slow change, so human worker transition to other sectors of the economy was not especially painful.

Then, beginning around 2025, advances in artificial intelligence made possible the development and adoption of a smarter, more mobile robot. Leaders in the service sector of the economy quickly adopted this new bot as a boon to business. The fast food and the hospitality industries were among the first to use service robots, or servbots, extensively. As the president of a national burger chain put it, “the most expensive part of my operation is labor costs. Human workers cost a lot to hire, to train, and to pay. I have to provide human workers with health insurance and vacation time. I have none of these expenses with my servbot workers.To be brutally honest, human workers are a lot of trouble, trouble I can avoid by using servbots.”

Labor leaders and some politicians, on the other hand, decry the loss of jobs to servbots even as the general public seems to readily accept them, especially the servbots that have humaniform features. Businesses have been quick to pick up on this. Today, a fast food restaurant’s staff is likely to be humaniform servbots wearing the food chain’s signature uniform. If you’ve stayed at a hotel in the past two or three years, it is likely you noticed the desk clerk as well as the housekeeping staff were not human.

In terms of technical sophistication, noetic androids, like Matt, will be well advanced from the ubiquitous servbots. Like Lord Ewald’s Alicia, noetics will be outwardly indistinguishable from humans. They will act with autonomous, human-like complexity, and will interact with the subtle nuances of human personality, with emotions and feelings. Whereas servbots, even the very best ones, cannot pass as human, noetics will seem as human, as alive as you and I.

How will this be accomplished? Physically, the noetics will have major improvements over the servbots  New materials are being developed such as artificial muscles to replace mechanical servos and linear actuators. More importantly, major advances in AI will allow the creation of emotive algorithms. The noetics will look more closely human, and will have emotive responses, though, it can be argued, not true emotions as such.

Among the developers of the noetic concept, excitement is high. But it remains to be seen whether U.S. society will embrace noetics. For decades American film and literature have portrayed noetic-like robots as threatening terminators run amok. This unfortunate but popular sci-fi trope has left its imprint on American culture  Surveys conducted by Stanford and other universities indicate an undertone discomfort among Americans in regards to the notion of autonomous noetic androids.

Japan, in contrast, has had an unfaltering love affair with robots for decades. The semi-autonomous servbot class robots are an indispensable feature of Japanese culture, always depicted as augmenting Japanese society in a positive way. Japan has, in fact, been looking forward with anticipation to the day when its society will be one in which humans and noetic androids coexist as equals.

It was about the year 2000 that discussions in Japan began in earnest concerning a human/android coexistence society. The talks culminated in the initial Fukuoka World Robot Declaration (2004) which stated that humans and noetic androids will one day coexist as societal partners. The declaration stated the noetic’s role in society will be to assist humans both physically and psychologically, and to contribute to a secure and peaceful society. In 2007, the European Robotics Research Network echoed this statement, and added the following points: androids will evolve into a new species with consciousness, morality, and intelligence. The first Fukuoka declaration and the European Robotics Research Network statement received little attention in the U.S. Such declarations were, in the view of the American press, fantasies. These two declarations were, however, amazingly prescient.

Since the publication of these two landmark (though largely ignored) declarations, there have been a number of further talks, within both academia and government. Academics predict noetic androids will demonstrate human sentient traits. Recognizing this, some governments, on both the national and the local levels, are carefully considering the proposition of granting noetic androids certain legal rights, even some degree of legal personhood. But in what respect might noetic androids be considered legal persons?

The key to this issue is the question of whether noetic androids will have the capacity to make free choices, and secondly, will an android’s choices derive from an ethical and moral reasoning? The European Robotics Research Network believes noetic androids will have a moral dimension and be capable of  making ethical decisions. This ability, the group says, will give noetic androids societal parity with humans. Does this mean a noetic android, as ethical and moral legal person, will have or should have rights such as ownership of real property, or the right to enter into a legally recognized civil union with a human? In the future, will some humans opt to marry noetic androids? Some voices argue “yes.”

The most recent International Conference on Love and Sex with Robots, held in April, 2038, in Amsterdam, stated that it is imperative that noetic androids have embedded emotions and feelings to allow them to form a psychological bond with humans, and this bond should be expressed in any way a human and an android desires, even to enter into a marriage relationship. The Japanese press hailed this declaration, but in the U.S. the responses ranged from amused surprise to angry shock.

While Japan and the European Union seem ready to embrace the development of a human/android societal coexistence, in the UK and the US, there are less optimistic voices. Kathleen Richardson, professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, is one such voice. In 2015, Professor Richardson created the Campaign Against Sex Robots. This movement’s initial goal was to denounce the notion of humans engaging in sex with robots, which she regarded as a form of prostitution. Over the past thirty years, the campaign has gained an international following and is presently a leading voice against human/robot marriage or civil union.  Interestingly, in Japan little is said about human/robot sex. In the Japanese culture this seems to be a non-issue.

Yet, in the U.S. there are certain voices in support of proposed rights for noetic androids. A few liberal states are pressing forward with legislation that will ensure noetics will be recognized as a protected class of legal persons. California, for example, has gone so far as to propose criminalizing the wanton destruction of a noetic, labeling such an act as ‘roboticide.’ In response, major servbot producers such as Mannix Corporation have discontinued the use of certain phrases such as ‘kill switch’ in reference to robot deactivation.

On the other hand, there are also loud voices objecting to noetics being regarded as sentient persons with legal standing. Chief among these voices in the U.S. is the Weisenberg Association. This group purports to have members in high places, notably in state governments and in Congress. The WA’s main message is that all robots including noetics are machines, not persons. As such, robots should not be granted any special legal standing including protection from so-called roboticide. The deactivation of a machine, argues the WA, is not murder. Groups such as the WA and the shadowy Gutfeld Resistance often utilize emotionally charged language in an effort to drive public sentiment against robots in general and against noetics in particular. It may be tempting to label such groups as technophobes or neo-Luddites. I think this would be unfair. While I believe noetic androids can and will coexist with humans as supportive partners in society, I recognize that there may be some legitimate questions and concerns about this shared social structure, concerns society will have to address.

Chez Robert is, in my schoolgirl fantasy, a romantic place for couples like Matt and me. I do believe there will soon be such places frequented by human/noetic couples. Perhaps one day you will go there, and if you spot Matt and me having a quiet dinner, please come say “hello.”


Author’s note:  Even though it is a work of fiction, all of the references related to books, film, and conferences that took place prior to our present time are based in fact.

This story previously appeared in Bewildering Stories.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Larry Richardson lives in west Texas. He served in the U.S. army for twenty years, after which he was a registered nurse until his retirement. His writing is focused on the interaction of humans and human-like androids.