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The UK invited a robot to ‘give evidence’ in Parliament for attention

The UK invited a robot to ‘give evidence’ in Parliament for attention


Pepper the robot will just be reading out preprogrammed answers

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CeBIT Technology Trade Fair 2018
Pepper the robot is designed to interact with humans by giving directions and answering questions.
Photo by Alexander Koerner / Getty Images

The UK Parliament caused a bit of a stir this week with the news that it would play host to its first non-human witness. A press release from one of Parliament’s select committees (groups of MPs who investigate an issue and report back to their peers) said it had invited Pepper the robot to “answer questions” on the impact of AI on the labor market.

“Pepper is part of an international research project developing the world’s first culturally aware robots aimed at assisting with care for older people,” said the release from the Education Committee. “The Committee will hear about her work [and] what role increased automation and robotics might play in the workplace and classroom of the future.”

It is, of course, a stunt.

As a number of AI and robotics researchers pointed out on Twitter, Pepper the robot is incapable of giving such evidence. It can certainly deliver a speech the same way Alexa can read out the news, but it can’t formulate ideas itself. As one researcher told MIT Technology Review, “Modern robots are not intelligent and so can’t testify in any meaningful way.”

Parliament knows this. In an email to The Verge, a media officer for the Education Committee confirmed that Pepper would be providing preprogrammed answers written by robotics researchers from Middlesex University, who are also testifying on the same panel.

“It will be clear on the day that Pepper’s responses are not spontaneous,” said the spokesperson. “Having Pepper appear before the Committee and the chance to question the witnesses will provide an opportunity for members to explore both the potential and limitations of such technology and the capabilities of robots.”

Critics say it’s misleading to pretend a robot can give evidence

But is this misleading? If the aim of the Education Committee’s report is to soberly assess the impact of AI and robotics on the workplace, you can argue that it undermines this goal to suggest that a robot can give evidence, especially given the headlines it creates. On the other hand, bringing Pepper in is an arresting way to demonstrate contemporary tech, and if the robots limitations are fully explained, it could be very informative.

The committee’s chair, MP Robert Halfon, told education news site TES that inviting Pepper was “not about someone bringing an electronic toy robot and doing a demonstration” but showing the “potential of robotics and artificial intelligence.” It’s a solid story, but undermined somewhat by another of Halfon’s soundbites. “If we’ve got the march of the robots, we perhaps need the march of the robots to our select committee to give evidence,” he told the same publication.

It’s likely that this message — “robot testifies about AI threat ” — will be the one that sticks in peoples’ imagination; a valuable, if unwitting, lesson about the dangers of AI hype.

Update Friday October 12th, 11:55AM ET: Updated with additional comment from the Education Committee