Dr. Julie Carpenter: Human-Robot/AI Relationships

The social science research that we cover in this blog is carried out by a multitude of talented scientists across the world; each studying a different facet of the problem. As the first post in a new series, we interview one the pioneers in the study of human-AI relationships, Dr. Julie Carpenter.


Dr. Carpenter’s first book, Culture and human-robot interaction in militarized spaces: A war story (RoutledgeAmazon) expands on her research with U.S. military Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel and their everyday interactions with field robots.

About Dr. Julie Carpenter

Julie Carpenter has over 15 years of experience in human-centered design and human-AI interaction research, teaching, and writing. Her principal research is about how culture influences human perception of AI and robotic systems and the associated human factors such as user trust and decision-making in human-robot cooperative interactions in natural use-case environments.

Dr. Carpenter earned her PhD and an MS from the University of Washington, an MS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also currently a Research Fellow in the Ethics + Emerging Sciences group at California Polytechnic State University. 

Dr. Carpenter’s first book, Culture and human-robot interaction in militarized spaces: A war story (RoutledgeAmazon) expands on her research with U.S. military Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel and their everyday interactions with field robots. The findings from this research have applicability across a range of human-robot and human-AI cooperative scenarios, products, and situations. She regularly updates her website with information about her current work at jgcarpenter.com.

You have done a lot of work on the emotional attachment that humans have towards robots. Can you tell us more about your work?

At its heart, my work is human-centered and culture-centered. I tend to approach things in a very interdisciplinary way, and my body of published work reflects my long-term interest in how people use technology to communicate, from film to AI.

...there were relatively few people looking at AI as the vector for human emotion when I began in this vein

The medium or technologies I focus on changes and evolves. I began in film theory, then a lot of my work was about Web-based human interactions, and more recently it has been how people interact with robots and other forms of non-Web AI, like autonomous cars, textbots, or IoT agents such as Alexa.

But my lens for looking at things has always been rooted in a sort of anthropological interest in people and technology. Specifically, human emotional attachment to and through the technological medium interests me because there are so many nuanced possible pitfalls for the human, psychologically, ethically, emotionally, even physically.

Yet when it comes to scholarly study about topics like affection, friendship, love and their influence and connectedness with other complicated topics like trust, cooperative teamwork, and decision-making, there were relatively few people looking at AI as the vector for human emotion when I began in this vein. David Levy is one person who pioneered this discussion, of course, as are Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves.

As a film theory undergraduate student, I was drawn to how people use stories to explore technology, as we do in science fiction. Looking back, I can see where even then I was influenced by not only the idea of science fiction and science fiction films, but particularly ones that were of my own era as cultural touchstones and became the basis for a great deal of my early scholarly work. 

So, movies like Blade Runner were something I wrote whole papers about years before there was even a hint that we would enter an era when robots would become a reality in a very specific and rapid time for development in the 2000s. But back then I was looking at things as ideas connected specifically to that movie director’s body of work, or the audience for the movie, or culture at that time.

Blade Runner (1982).  Image source

Blade Runner (1982).  Image source

Now I look at a movie like that as an exploration of human-robot possibilities, a reflection and influencer of popular cultural ideas, and also an inspiration to people like me, makers and researchers who have a say in developing real world AI. I find those sort of storytelling influences fascinating because they often set up peoples’ real world expectations of their interactions with technology, and even helps form the communication model.

Storytelling’s influence on culture is a very rich set of artifacts for exploration, and I manage to reference that idea a great deal in the way I situate research in the larger culture it is part of, however that may be defined for the scope of that work.

What do you think about media portrayals of human-robot/autonomy relationships in movies (e.g., the new Bladerunner; the movie Her)?

Cultures around the world use science fiction to explore what it means to be human...

I love science fiction stories, and as I mentioned. I frequently use science fiction as a framework for discussing our expectations of interactions with AI and robots, because research shows it definitely can influence peoples’ expectations about how to interact with AI, at least initially.

Personally, Blade Runner definitely inspired me in many ways, going back to when I was studying film theory as an undergrad and never predicted I’d be working in a field called human-robot interaction someday. I know a lot of roboticists who cite other scifi as personal inspiration, too, such as Astro Boy. Storytelling captures our imagination and prompts questions, and it is a wonderful creative springboard for discussion, as well as entertainment.

A pitfall I am less a fan of is using Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws to discuss ethics and AI. Asimov wrote the Laws purposefully allowing for ethical pitfalls so he could keep writing stories; the Laws create plot points in their fallibility. If you want to use Three Laws (or four, if you count the Zeroth Law) to frame a discussion of ethical AI, then you have to acknowledge it is fictional, fallible, and very purposefully incomplete in conception—it isn’t a real world solution for development or policy-making, except perhaps as an example of what loopholes might be in a framework like the Three Laws if they were used in the real world.

Science fiction can be a cultural touchstone and a thought exercise for framing complicated human-AI interactions, but sometimes it is used for shorthand to communicate complicated issues in a way that disregards too much nuance of the issues being discussed. I’m an Asimov fan, but I think the Laws are sometimes relied upon too much in a scientific discussion or popular news framing of ethical problems for AI.

Having said that, I personally enjoy a wide range of AI representations in fiction, from the dystopic to the sympathetic predictions. The ethical dilemmas of the Terminator or Her are both entertaining for me to contemplate in the safety of my everyday life. Considering the more far-reaching implications of the ideas they are conveying is a more serious endeavor for me, of course. How we tell stories reflects our beliefs, and also pushes those beliefs and ideas further, questioning our suppositions, and in that way also has the potential to influence new ideas about how we interact with AI.

Her (2013).  Image source

Her (2013).  Image source

There is a rich history of stories we tell about AI that pre-dates the genre we call science fiction. Scifi is a relatively new genre label, in itself, but the idea of humans interacting with artificial life has been around forever, in various forms. All sorts of tales about humans interfering with the natural order of things to create a humanlike life outside the body--sometimes via magic spells or religious intervention--exist around the world. These AI characters take the form of golems, zombies, statues, puppets, dolls, and so on. Historically, this is a set of ideas that has universal fascination.

Cultures around the world use science fiction to explore what it means to be human, and what it means for our creation of and interactions with entities that are similar to us in some ways, often as if AI was a sociological Other.

I recently read the news of a man in China marrying the robot he created. SciFi movies are certainly becoming a reality. What are the ethical implications of human-automation romantic relationships?

We are currently in an era where we are really just beginning discussions of emerging ethics in this domain earnestly because of the enormous progress of AI and robotics over the last decade in particular.

Right now, a romantic feeling for AI is considered aberrant behavior, so it carries a very different significance than it will when AI and robots are accepted as objects that can carry a great deal of meaning for people in different situations, whether it’s as caregiver or mentor or helper or companion or romantic interest.

In other words, I don’t think we can make shorthand generalizations about a “type” of person that marries a robot or other AI very successfully as a static model, because the way we regard human-robot relationships will change as robots become part of our everyday realities and we learn to live with them and negotiate what different robots might mean to us in different ways.

I think that to an extent, eventually we will see society normalize human-robot romantic relationships as a culturally accepted option for some people. We are still going through a process of discovery about our interactions with robots now, but we do see patterns of human-robot interaction strikingly different from our interactions with other objects, and one emerging pattern is that in some conditions we treat AI and robots in socially meaningful ways that sometimes includes emotional attachment and/or affection from the person to the AI or robot.

The ethical pitfalls of a human-robot romantic relationship can come from the development end, the user end, and society’s perceptions of that relationship. From the development end, some ethical concerns are the development of the AI, and the human biases and influences we are teaching AI that learns from us, whether it is through direct programming or neural networks.  Robot hacking and privacy concerns are thorny nests of ethical issues, too.

Say someone has a romantic or other affection for AI used in their home, and interacts with it that way, accordingly. In that case, who has access to what the robot or AI hears you say, watches what you do, the information it gathers about your everyday life and your preferences for everything from dish detergent to sexual activities?  What if that data was hacked, and someone tried to use the gathered information to manipulate you? These are major technical and ethical issues.

From the user end, one ethical concern is whether people who become emotionally attached to AI have a real self-awareness of the lack of truly humanlike reciprocity in a human-AI relationship with the current technology, and whether they lack a root understanding that the AI is not anywhere near humanlike intelligence, although sometimes those are the very traits of AI that can attract someone to it romantically.

Furthermore, society does not treat AI or robots like people when it comes to things like legal status, so similar ethical concerns are reflected in the ways the people around the user that reports to be romantically interested in AI recognize that for someone else to declare oneself in a committed, persistent, affectionate relationship with an AI form also acknowledges involvement in an imbalanced power dynamic.

Another ethical question rising from romantic human-AI interaction is, “Will a person who is accustomed to the imbalanced power dynamic of a human-robot relationship transfer their behaviors into their human-human relationships?” The implication there is that (1) the person treats the robot in a way we would find distasteful in human-human dynamics, and (2) that our social behaviors with robots will be something we apply as a model to human-human interactions.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  Image source

Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  Image source

We are currently in an era where we are really just beginning discussions of emerging ethics in this domain earnestly because of the enormous progress of AI and robotics over the last decade in particular. It is only the beginning of a time when we formalize some of our decisions about these ethical concerns as law and policies, and how we establish less formal ways of negotiating our interactions with AI via societal norms.

I’m looking forward to watching how we integrate AI technologies like robots and autonomous cars with our everyday lives because I think there are a lot of potential good that will come from our using them. Our path to integrating AI into our lives is already fascinating.