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

The Verge logo The Verge 10/12/2018 James Vincent
a close up of a toy: Pepper the robot is designed to interact with humans by giving directions and answering questions. © Photo by Alexander Koerner / Getty Images Pepper the robot is designed to interact with humans by giving directions and answering questions.

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.”

It seems Parliament knows this. In an email to The Verge, a media officer for the Education Committee confirmed that Pepper the robot would be answering questions provided in advance. And as the bot is supplied by Middlesex University, with three of their researchers sitting on the same panel, it’s safe to assume that they’ll be the ones writing the answers.

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 even pretend that a robot can give evidence. On the other hand, bringing Pepper in is an arresting way to demonstrate contemporary tech.

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 explanation, but it’s 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.


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