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To love or to abuse a robot?

Recently, two BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) journalists carried out an experiment with the self-teaching AI robot Pleo. A three minute concatenated video of the experiment is available, but only for IPs within the United Kingdom. To help counteract this issue, this article serves as a textual description of the effort and its results.

The Pleo

Pleo is a robotic dinosaur produced by Ugobe incorporated, an American AI firm.

Every Pleo is unique, as each begins with a blank mind and the capability to learn. They are autonomous and will explore and interact with the world you provide for them, as soon as they are switched on. Switch them off, store them, and switch them on again - they will continue from the moment they left off. Once personality traits are embedded, they cannot be removed.

They resemble a baby Camarasaurus (late-Jurassic North American herbivore, 1:1 scale as a newborn) and have a full skeleton inside the plastic shell, with motors and actuators controlled by Pleo's brain. He'll basically behave like a small puppy, learning to walk, wanting food, play and nap time.

The Experiment

The BBC wanted to see how much of Pleo's nature was hardwired code (nature) and how much was down to the owner (nurture). To do this, they purchased two Pleos, and gave them each a very different upbringing.

The Good Parents

The first was mollycoddled, treated well, spoke to in a pleasant voice, stroked, and given lots and lots of stimulation.

One of the researchers even laid on his back with Pleo on his tummy, playing with him ljust the same as you would with a young puppy. Throughout this treatment the pleo wriggled around, cramining its neck, wagging its tail, and trying to move about.

After a few hours play, other office workers were brought in to see Pleo, to coo over him, to pet and stroke and generally positively reinforce the waggy, wriggly robot.

He was not left alone for a second. Then, towards the evening, it was taken outside, in the rainy British weather, and placed down in the grass and flowerbeds so it could explore all kinds of new sensations. After all the confidence building indoors, the pleo did this, wandering every where, sticking its nose into everything; going up to perfect strangers and nuzzling a hello.

The Bad Parents

After the good parenting experiment was finished, and the happy Pleo was wandering another office out of the experiment zone, the second, unimprinted Pleo was unpacked. This one was going to be the baby of bad parents and was the test to see if its personality would be markedly different or not.

To begin with it was turned on whilst upside down, then plonked unceremonously onto the desk upright. The two researchers did not touch it after that, arguing with waving hand gestures over who was going to take care of it.

It is left with the female researcher whilst the male goes back to his desk. She ignores it totally, until it starts trying to teach itself how to walk and nearly falls off the desk in the process. She picks it up. Puts it back on the desk, then gets up, picks it up by the tail, and carries it swinging by the tail, over to her colleagues desk - across the room - to deal with it. The Pleo emits a baleful crying noise as it is carried this way. It sounds in considerable distress.

The colleague doesn't want it either, puts it atop a filing cabinet and ignores it. For hours it stands there, crying balefully. Afterwards, the researchers stand behind the filing cabinet - its up against a glass screen - and make hand gestures and raised voices at each other as if angry, occasionally, dismissively, looking at the robot. The Pleo however, is watching them, and not responding well.

Pleo spends the rest of the day in a store room. Dunked unceremoniously atop a pile of papers, between a pile of boxes and a collection of disused monitors. It cannot get out, can barely see over the paperwork by craning its neck, and is left there the entire rest of the day, with no companionship what so ever. It spends the whole time crying.

The result when he is taken out, is a stark contrast to the previous Pleo. This one is utterly unsocial, and really does not want to know. It has stopped crying, and just lays there. The power's fine, because when someone raps on its back, it lifts its head, looks up briefly, wags its tail partially, slowly, then closes its eyes and lowers its head, in a distinctly utterly depressed gesture. As its head drops, it criess a little more, softly.

Almost as if its had all the experience of life it wants, leave it alone to die.

In conclusion

In conclusion it is clear that robots like the Pleo do indeed have emotional states just like the manufacturer claims. It is also clear that within just a scant few years, tests such as this one will become immoral, and possibly illegal, as the robots gain behaviour, personality traits, and reactions towards abuse that resemble dogs, cats, and other higher mammals.

Its not too far fetched after watching Cleo in action, to picture one reacting like a human baby - and mentally maturing beyond that stage.

BBC i-Player Video

Note: The BBC i-Player is a cantankerous beast. It will not display videos if you live outside the UK, or Commonwealth nations.

Anyone else - including citizens of the USA - will not be able to see this video unless you can gain access via a proxy that is within the Commonwealth.

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