Should robots look and act like humans?

6 min readNov 9, 2016


The following post outlines the key points from the debate between Ben Goertzel and Andra Keay on ‘Robots should look and act like people’ at Web Summit 2016 in Lisbon.

In Westworld, the latest drama saga from JJ Abrahams and HBO, viewers are presented with a window into the future and introduced to an environment where humans interact with humanoid robots in life sized, real world theme park.

The robots in Westworld are not your typical archetypal robots, they are humanoid robots built to visually represent the human image. They walk like humans, talk like humans and move and think like humans. They are also capable of expressing emotions, reacting to their environment and developing relationships making them virtually indistinguishable from humans themselves.

Humanoid robots Teddy and Dolores from Westworld

10 years ago, this may have seen like a tech crazed view of future. However, with the increased focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), coupled with progression in robotics pioneered by companies such as Boston Dynamics, a world where humanoid robots are a reality doesn’t seem all that far away.

Robot line up from American Robotics company Boston Dynamic

This poses an important question of how we should design robots.

Should we be designing humanoid robots capable of developing virtually indistinguishable robots capable of developing deep and meaningful relationships? Or should we instead be developing robots to simply help and assist us in our every day tasks whilst still resembling the typical goggle eyed metallic robot?

A humanoid robot is a robot with its body shape built to resemble the human body. The design may be for functional purposes, such as interacting with human tools and environments, for experimental purposes, such as the study of bipedal locomotion, or for other purposes. In general, humanoid robots have a torso, a head, two arms, and two legs, though some forms of humanoid robots may model only part of the body, for example, from the waist up. Some humanoid robots also have heads designed to replicate human facial features such as eyes and mouths.

Robots That Transcend Human Intelligence

Ben Goertzel, Chief Scientist at Hanson Robotics is a pro humanoid fan. Goertzel argues that human intelligence is a finite resource and the end goal for robotics is to create machines that are capable of transcending human intelligence.

Ben Goertzel, Chief Scientist at Hanson Robotics

We’re currently at a stage in the development of robotics where robots are already very good at performing routine tasks. Popular AI’s such as Siri and Alexa are capable of performing common tasks such as managing our playlists, shopping lists and creating reminders.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

The evolution of robotics is to train robots to understand human values and develop emotional intelligence. The end result of which will make robots capable of integrating within societies seamlessly, developing and sharing emotional connections with people. In order to achieve this, robots need to be able to both undertsand and express emotions. Key to achieving this is allowing robots to express emotions visual through facial expressions.

Everybody loves Johnny 5 & WALL.E

Andra Keay Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robitics argues the contrary.

Andra Keay Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robitics

Why do we need to develop humanoid robots that resemble our own image and replicate our own behaviour? What is wrong with robots that look like robots and perform the tasks we need them to?

Everybody loves these guys right?

Keay argues we can achieve the same results Goertzel talks about without trying to mimic the human form. Embellishing robots with human features raises important question of Ethics and Societal Responsibility. After all, how would you feel after developing a deep and meaningful relationship with someone to later find they are a humanoid Robot? Would you feel deceived? Cheated?

Misrepresentation and Identity Theft

Hong Kong designer Ricky Ma has recently completed building a robot to visually replicate the appearance of Scarlett Johanson. To what purpose? Only the imagination can conclude.

Ricky Ma’s robot built to resemble the appearance of Scarlett Johanson

Events such as this raise important questions such as are we in danger of objectifying men and women and how you would feel if your visual appearance had been replicated and sold and a sex robot? Is this an intrusion of your privacy?

You may think sex robots may be a leap to far however there is already a cafe in Geneva Switzerland where you can purchase a sex robot along with your morning flat white coffee.

Is that all Sir?

A question of Ethics

Keay points out the more we start to develop robots that resemble humans the more we need to be aware of the ethical considerations.

If a human starts to develop emotions and are capable of developing deep and manful relationships then what if we as humans start to abuse robots? Is this this a crime? Or like the theme park environment in Westworld should we be able to indulge in these bad behaviours without repercussion or consequence?

Will Smith fighting synth robots in I, Robot

Kaye argues If we pursue creating robots in our own image we need to establish clear regulations and guidelines that outline acceptable robotic production and behaviour towards robotics.

Closing Thoughts

The dystopian environment we see in Westworld may have once seemed like make believe future however it may end up being the future we create for ourselves. Right now the robots we are building will create and shape this future.

With an increased focused in AI and robotics there has to be more responsibility taken by robot producers and governments to ensure we create an environment in which we wish to live.

Collectively, we need to stop and ask ourselves is the lack of emotion and physical appearance of robots what makes robots robots? Do we need to over engineer robots in a way they reflect if not better our own image? After all how many people prefer R2D2 to C3PO.

C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars

So what do we think, should robots look and act like humans?

Well, the results of the vote in the Web Summit room was split divided with the pro humanoid fans perhaps edging it a little.

I’ll leave you to make up your own minds in terms of what you think however for me… Call me old fashioned but I’ll take a Johnny 5 any day for emotional relationships I’d prefer to stick to people.

That’s all folks

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Head of User Experience Design & Insights @Dept. Known for and telling dad jokes. #UX & #analytics ninja.