Could SociBot Be Your New Best Friend?

Though applications like Skype and FaceTime have made long-distance communication easier than ever before, the impersonal nature of such methods can be worrying to those who prefer face-to-face conversations. After all, how are you supposed to properly express your enthusiasm for your friend’s new Flappy Doge high score when you’re talking to a 2D, pixelated version of her face? Luckily, a new company coming out of the UK aims to fix this problem.

Engineered Arts, an organization specializing in the production of mechanic humanoids, has recently developed a device that can project a human face onto a three-dimensional, robot body, thus creating the illusion of face-to-face contact. Using innovative mapping technology and complex computer programming, the social robot or “SociBot” can mimic a user’s eye movements and even their facial expressions, lending a more intimate feeling to Skype dates and conference calls.

On its own, SociBot can not only imitate human emotion but also, recognize them in others. As one of the creators notes, “[SociBot] knows when you’re there and can tell how you’re feeling, and it knows how to respond accordingly.” Rest assured, if you ever lose your mood ring and need to know what you’re feeling, a SociBot is out there waiting to be purchased for one low payment of 14,500 pounds (around 30,000 USD).

SociBot’s price isn’t what worries me, though. What concerns me more is the notion that this device could function as a legitimate replacement for human interaction. The company foresees SociBot being used in tourist spots and airports to relieve humans of tedious, repetitive jobs like directing tourists to the nearest bathroom or reminding people not to bring toddlers on high-speed roller coasters.

I’ve got major beef with this idea (major beef, basically a whole cow) for two main reasons. First of all, the country is already struggling with record-high unemployment rates, so installing a device that would eliminate the need for human workers in certain areas seems a bit counterproductive to me. And secondly, I have enough trouble trying to navigate automated customer service phone lines; I don’t need another machine telling me that it cannot understand my question for the fiftieth time in a row.

This is not to say I don’t appreciate SociBot’s interactive functions because, in some ways, I do. However, its claim that it will bring the “human touch” back to digital conversation seems a bit far-fetched. SociBot can’t give me dating advice or hug me when I get my first electricity bill. (And even if it could, I’d be too afraid of getting crushed when the robot underestimates its own strength, like Lennie with the puppy in Of Mice and Men or your grandma on Christmas.) It can imitate a human all it wants, right down to bad breath and dandruff problems, but that doesn’t make it human. I don’t fear the fading boundaries between this distinction as much as I fear humanity’s questionable ability to recognize it.

But what do you think? Will SociBot be able to revolutionize how we communicate in the future, or is it simply too creepy? Should it be used to replace human workers? Should it be used at all?

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