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An autonomous security robot , it rolled around by itself, taking video and reading license plates. Locals had complained the garage was dangerous, but K5 seemed to be doing a good job restoring safety. Until the night of August 3, when a stranger came up to K5, knocked it down, and kicked it repeatedly, inflicting serious damage.

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Robots engender human sympathy. Seen in the wild, they appear to have agency, feelings, and desires. When delivery bots get stuck on the sidewalk, good Samaritans help them get unstuck. In light of the attack on K5, then, you may be thinking: Poor guy.

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The 5-foot-tall bot, whose shape is often described in phallic terms, indeed projects a certain charisma. Wobbling over the uneven pavement at 3 mph, it looks more like a bumbling neighbor than a robocop. When one K5 stationed in Washington, DC, rolled itself into a fountain in summer , the internet worried it was suicidal. Live your truth. Sure, sometimes people do get in the way. Rarely do the interventions cause damage. The incident on August 3, though, was not a case of poking around.

Though the identity of the assailant remains unknown, video captured just before K5 crashed to the concrete shows a blurry image of a young person with dark hair running past the camera. This was likely premeditated. In a drunk man attacked a K5 in a Mountain View parking lot. A few months later a group of angry protestors in San Francisco covered another one in a tarp, pushed it to the ground, and smeared barbecue sauce on it. Stephens did specify that Knightscope prosecutes "to the fullest extent of the law," often pursuing felony charges for damaged K5s.

A brief history of humans and robots bears this out. Children bully them.

Philadelphians behead them. In one incident, office workers bullied an HR chatbot so terribly that management wondered if the workers should be fired. Humans are mean to robots. The question is: Do we care? Quite right. The vandalism of security cameras rarely piques my curiosity. Because K5 is not a friendly robot, even if the cutesy blue lights are meant to telegraph that it is. The advent of cities sometime between 5, and 10, years ago meant a less nomadic existence and a higher population density.


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We adapted both individually and collectively for instance, we may have evolved resistance to infections made more likely by these new circumstances. More recently, the invention of technologies including the printing press, the telephone, and the internet revolutionized how we store and communicate information.

The basic contours of these traits remain remarkably consistent throughout the world, regardless of whether a population is urban or rural, and whether or not it uses modern technology. But adding artificial intelligence to our midst could be much more disruptive. Especially as machines are made to look and act like us and to insinuate themselves deeply into our lives, they may change how loving or friendly or kind we are—not just in our direct interactions with the machines in question, but in our interactions with one another.

C onsider some experiments from my lab at Yale, where my colleagues and I have been exploring how such effects might play out. In one, we directed small groups of people to work with humanoid robots to lay railroad tracks in a virtual world. Each group consisted of three people and a little blue-and-white robot sitting around a square table, working on tablets.

As it turned out, this clumsy, confessional robot helped the groups perform better —by improving communication among the humans. They became more relaxed and conversational, consoling group members who stumbled and laughing together more often. Compared with the control groups, whose robot made only bland statements, the groups with a confessional robot were better able to collaborate. Unknown to the subjects, some groups contained a few bots that were programmed to occasionally make mistakes.

5 things robots do better than humans (and 3 things they don’t)

Humans who were directly connected to these bots grew more flexible, and tended to avoid getting stuck in a solution that might work for a given individual but not for the group as a whole. As a consequence, groups with mistake-prone bots consistently outperformed groups containing bots that did not make mistakes.

The bots helped the humans to help themselves. Other findings reinforce this. For instance, the political scientist Kevin Munger directed specific kinds of bots to intervene after people sent racist invective to other people online. But adding AI to our social environment can also make us behave less productively and less ethically.

In each round, subjects were told that they could either keep their money or donate some or all of it to their neighbors. If they made a donation, we would match it, doubling the money their neighbors received. Early in the game, two-thirds of players acted altruistically. After all, they realized that being generous to their neighbors in one round might prompt their neighbors to be generous to them in the next one, establishing a norm of reciprocity.

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From a selfish and short-term point of view, however, the best outcome would be to keep your own money and receive money from your neighbors. In this experiment, we found that by adding just a few bots posing as human players that behaved in a selfish, free-riding way, we could drive the group to behave similarly. Eventually, the human players ceased cooperating altogether.

The three things humans will always do better than robots

The bots thus converted a group of generous people into selfish jerks. Cooperation is a key feature of our species, essential for social life. And trust and generosity are crucial in differentiating successful groups from unsuccessful ones. If everyone pitches in and sacrifices in order to help the group, everyone should benefit.

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When this behavior breaks down, however, the very notion of a public good disappears, and everyone suffers. The fact that AI might meaningfully reduce our ability to work together is extremely concerning. A lready, we are encountering real-world examples of how AI can corrupt human relations outside the laboratory. A study examining 5. Other social effects of simple types of AI play out around us daily. As digital assistants become ubiquitous, we are becoming accustomed to talking to them as though they were sentient; writing in these pages last year, Judith Shulevitz described how some of us are starting to treat them as confidants, or even as friends and therapists.

If we grow more comfortable talking intimately to our devices, what happens to our human marriages and friendships? Thanks to commercial imperatives, designers and programmers typically create devices whose responses make us feel better—but may not help us be self-reflective or contemplate painful truths.

As AI permeates our lives, we must confront the possibility that it will stunt our emotions and inhibit deep human connections, leaving our relationships with one another less reciprocal, or shallower, or more narcissistic. All of this could end up transforming human society in unintended ways that we need to reckon with as a polity. Do we want machines to affect whether and how children are kind? Do we want machines to affect how adults have sex? We might even progress from treating robots as instruments for sexual gratification to treating other people that way.

Other observers have suggested that robots could radically improve sex between humans.