The Coronavirus Chatbot

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States Department of Health and Human Services have launched a chatbot that will help people decide what to do if they have potential Coronavirus symptoms such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. This was reported by the magazine MIT Technology Review on 24 March 2020. “The hope is the self-checker bot will act as a form of triage for increasingly strained health-care services.” (MIT Technology Review, 24 March 2020) According to the magazine, the chatbot asks users questions about their age, gender, and location, and about any symptoms they’re experiencing. It also inquires whether they may have met someone diagnosed with COVID-19. On the basis of the users’ replies, it recommends the best next step. “The bot is not supposed to replace assessment by a doctor and isn’t intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment purposes, but it could help figure out who most urgently needs medical attention and relieve some of the pressure on hospitals.” (MIT Technology Review, 24 March 2020) The service is intended for people who are currently located in the US. International research is being done not only on useful but also on moral chatbots.

The HUGGIE Project

The first phase of the HUGGIE project will start at the School of Business FHNW in March 2020. Oliver Bendel was able to recruit two students from the International Management program. The project idea is to create a social robot that contributes directly to a good life and economic success by touching and hugging people and especially customers. HUGGIE should be able to warm up in some places, and it should be possible to change the materials it is covered with. A research question will be: What are the possibilities besides warmth and softness? Are optical stimuli (also on displays), vibrations, noises, voices etc. important for a successful hug? HUGGIE could also play a role in crises and disasters, in epidemics and pandemics and in cases of permanent social distancing. Of course it would be bad if only a robot would hug us, and of course it would be good if humans could hug us every day if we wanted them to do so – but maybe in extreme situations a hug by a robot is better than nothing. The HUGGIE project is located in the heart of social robotics and on the periphery of machine ethics. By summer 2020, the students will conduct an online survey to find out the attitudes and expectations of the users.

Moral and Immoral Machines

Since 2012, Oliver Bendel has invented 13 artifacts of machine ethics. Nine of them have actually been implemented, including LADYBIRD, the animal-friendly vacuum cleaning robot, and LIEBOT, the chatbot that can systematically lie. Both of them have achieved a certain popularity. The information and machine ethicist is convinced that ethics does not necessarily have to produce the good. It should explore the good and the evil and, like any science, serve to gain knowledge. Accordingly, he builds both moral and immoral machines. But the immoral ones he keeps in his laboratory. In 2020, if the project is accepted, HUGGIE will see the light of day. The project idea is to create a social robot that contributes directly to a good life and economic success by touching and hugging people and especially customers. HUGGIE should be able to warm up in some places, and it should be possible to change the materials it is covered with. A research question will be: What are the possibilities besides warmth and softness? Are optical stimuli (also on displays), vibrations, noises, voices etc. important for a successful hug? All moral and immoral machines that have been created between 2012 and 2020 are compiled in a new illustration, which is shown here for the first time.

Extended Deadline for RP2020

The organizers of the conference “RP2020: Culturally Sustainable Social Robotics” announced that the deadline for submission has been extended to May 1, 2020. The CfP raises questions like that: “How can we create cultural dynamics with or through social robots that will not impact our value landscape negatively? How can we develop social robotics applications that are culturally sustainable? If cultural sustainability is relative to a community, what can we expect in a global robot market? Could we design human-robot interactions in ways that will positively cultivate the values we, or people anywhere, care about?” (Website Robophilosophy Conference) In 2018 Hiroshi Ishiguro, Guy Standing, Catelijne Muller, Joanna Bryson, and Oliver Bendel had been keynote speakers of the Robophilosophy conference. In 2020, Catrin Misselhorn, Selma Sabanovic, and Shannon Vallor will be presenting. More information via conferences.au.dk/robo-philosophy/.

Care Robots with Sexual Assistance Functions

The paper “Care Robots with Sexual Assistance Functions” by Oliver Bendel was accepted at the AAAI 2020 Spring Symposia. From the abstract: “Residents in retirement and nursing homes have sexual needs just like other people. However, the semi-public situation makes it difficult for them to satisfy these existential concerns. In addition, they may not be able to meet a suitable partner or find it difficult to have a relationship for mental or physical reasons. People who live or are cared for at home can also be affected by this problem. Perhaps they can host someone more easily and discreetly than the residents of a health facility, but some elderly and disabled people may be restricted in some ways. This article examines the opportunities and risks that arise with regard to care robots with sexual assistance functions. First of all, it deals with sexual well-being. Then it presents robotic systems ranging from sex robots to care robots. Finally, the focus is on care robots, with the author exploring technical and design issues. A brief ethical discussion completes the article. The result is that care robots with sexual assistance functions could be an enrichment of the everyday life of people in need of care, but that we also have to consider some technical, design and moral aspects.” The paper had been submitted to the symposium “Applied AI in Healthcare: Safety, Community, and the Environment”. Oliver Bendel will present the paper at Stanford University between 23 and 25 March 2020.

Towards a Human-like Chatbot

Google is currently working on Meena, a particular chatbot, which should be able to have arbitrary conversations and be used in many contexts. In their paper “Towards a Human-like Open-Domain Chatbot“, the developers present the 2.6 billion parameters end-to-end trained neural conversational model. They show that Meena “can conduct conversations that are more sensible and specific than existing state-of-the-art chatbots”. “Such improvements are reflected through a new human evaluation metric that we propose for open-domain chatbots, called Sensibleness and Specificity Average (SSA), which captures basic, but important attributes for human conversation. Remarkably, we demonstrate that perplexity, an automatic metric that is readily available to any neural conversational models, highly correlates with SSA.” (Google AI Blog) The company draws a comparison with OpenAI GPT-2, a model used in “Talk to Transformer” and Harmony, among others, which uses 1.5 billion parameters and is based on the text content of 8 million web pages.