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Sunday, 1 April 2018

Open response to scientist Chris Verhoeven of the Delft Institute of Technology: a robot is not a pet animal. In spite of its million lines of code, it still lacks the natural ability to give affection and to love and be loved. And it doesn’t fear death or pain, as it is not aware of being alive.

big brown beastie,
big brown face,
I'd rather be with you,
than flying through space...

In 2001 – the last year as a single as I did not come to know my wife yet – I went on a group holiday to Costa Rica. It was a very special holiday that I will remember for the rest of my life. One of the dearest memories to me was riding on a horse during this holiday.

With the group we received an hour of riding instruction on a small and gentle Costarican “Rent-a-Horse” as part of an excursion. It was a life-changing event. In spite of the fact that I had not more than two minutes(!) of horse riding experience at the time, I felt an immediate click with my animal. We understood each other and I was so impressed with the own will and own decision making of my horse.

Before riding on a horse, I had a lot of driving experience on mopeds and motor bikes: the moped did everything that I wanted and if I drove it masterfully, the moped never stopped me from going where I wanted to go. Driving my moped made me very happy and alive as a sixteen year old boy!

Yet, this horse was so different. It was so much alive and aware of its own being! On narrow and slippery paths (it was rainy at the time – EL) and dry levies, it watched for the most safe and sensible way to go, as it did not want to fall itself. If the animal did not want to go where I wanted it to go, it simply refused to walk. It seemed on a journey by itself to make this ‘one off’ jockey have a nice and safe ride. And I did!

The next day I was still so full of my ride, that a few group members and I decided to rent a horse for almost a day and ride through the beautiful Costarican landscape. It was a ride I will never forget and even though it was not exactly ‘safe’ to gallop on the slippery paths in the pouring rain with virtually no experience, I was so happy that I did it. My horse pulled me through that they and I loved it ever since! Even while my bottom hurt for a week or more after this ride.

I reflected upon this dear memory, when I read an article in Het Financieele Dagblad containing an interview with a scientist in robotics of the Delft Institute of Technology (TU Delft), Chris Verhoeven.

He argued that people should look at robots and robotized vehicles as a kind of animals. Then the initial fear and reluctance of using them would vanish, to be replaced for a relation based on trust and confidence. Here are the pertinent snips of this must-read interview:

“Yes, also with a self-driving vehicle something can go wrong. But in earlier years this could also happen with the equally autonomous horse and we never abolished that”, states Chris Verhoeven of the TU Delft Robotics Institute. To build up a ‘bond of confidence with your robot, that is the point.

Verhoeven is a very popular speaker about what he calls, ‘the robotic trinity’. In that he sees the robot as the physical manifestation of the information that is available via the ‘Internet of Things’ and Big Data.

A conversation with Verhoeven leads to surprising insights. He calls the difference between science and religion ‘fragile’, talks about ‘little drones fluttering around on Schiphol’, looking for drugs in your luggage. And he talks about ‘believing in your robot’, which is – by the way – an ‘electric animal’.

I always start to tell that robots are animals. I specifically say ‘are’, not ‘are akin to’. A very important characteristic of an animal – look at a dog or a horse – is that it is autonomous. When you look at a farmer, ploughing a piece of land with a horse, then the horse is autonomous, but it listens to the farmer.

At this moment we have the feeling that we need to be in control. But ‘in command’ means that the autonomous system listens to you. There is a situation of ordination, a relation based on trust.

The farmer and his ploughing horse, in which the horse knew very well what it should do, that was an autonomous system.

[Consequently - EL] It is very good to realize that we have been there before. An autonomous truck is like horse and carriage. An autonomous car is a horse. You can step on a horse drunk and it will bring you home safely anyway”.

I totally dig what Chris Verhoeven states here and I fully understand where he comes from.

Yet, I utterly disagree with what Verhoeven has to say and I even think that especially the red and bold parts are quite dangerous. I want to write my response to Verhoeven with the image of my beloved ‘Rent-a-horse’ in mind.

Yes, my horse is autonomous and so is the robot. 

My horse was born and grown as an animal and it had to find his way through life from being a young foal to the old, retired horse that he one day will have become.

So the autonomy is what Verhoeven’s robot and my horse had in common. But that is where the similarities end, as far as I’m concerned.

My horse is alive. It knows and understands that it is alive, even though it probably can’t grasp the impact of this notion. My horse feels pain and fear and it wants to protect itself from experiencing pain and fear. In order to do so, it must not only protect itself from it, but also the horseman on his back.

Further, some horses are genuine heroes and other horses are a little more cowardice, when it comes to what they (don’t) dare to do. That is what makes every horse one of a kind.

Even though the trust in their horsemen is nearly endless, there can always be a moment that the horse says “No way, José!”. Everybody who saw a jockey fly through the air in front of a barrier during a horse show, knows that his horse pulled the ‘emergency brake’. At that moment the twenty-odd years of riding experience of the jockey suddenly don’t count anymore for the horse.

Almost certainly the horse feels affection and perhaps even love for his master or mistress, which gives them a bond for a lifetime. When one of those two must have to go, both feel the pain and sorrow of loss and grief. That is not autonomy, that is being alive.

The robot, however, is not alive and will never experience what it is to be alive. It will do the things it is programmed to do and it will learn the things that it is capable of learning. But it will never feel emotions like joy, fear, grief, pleasure and love. It will always be an intelligent and self-learning, but further utterly dead tool. Unless things will change dramatically in the next few decades.

Drones fly, because its their raison d'etre. Driving robots and autonomous cars and trucks drive, as that is for which they are designed. Killer robots kill without blinking an eye or thinking about the impact of such a deed, as that is for which THEY are designed. 

But it will never give them joy, pleasure, pain, grief or sorrow. These emotional capabilities are not in their package. Just because they are NOT alive. 

When an autonomous car crashes, because its software, its internet connection or its sensors let it down at a crucial moment, it will crash without experiencing any humane or animal emotion.

It. Just. Crashes! Killing itself and perhaps killing everybody inside it. Without pain or remorse.

And when an autonomous car or truck drives into an adolescent kid, an old lady or a child, killing it at the spot, it will feel no pain, sorrow or grief. It came to the end of its lifecycle without ever realizing what went wrong.

When I feel trust and confidence in an autonomously driving car or truck, it is because I trust its programmers and software testers to do the right thing overtime. And I trust time to have uncovered the most dangerous bugs during the various testing cycles. Just like what happened with the auto-pilots in airplanes.  

Therefore I am quite certain that I will start to have confidence in autonomous vehicles, when they pass me by on the road. Not now at this moment, but in a decade of testing and after painful, sometimes deadly accidents that kill innocent people.

But trust it or love it like an animal, like Verhoeven suggests?! Never! Even the suggestion is ridiculous.

And by the way, roads in the Wild West were littered with cowboys who thought that their horse would bring them home safely, in spite of their drunkenness.