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Our relationships with animals offer insight into the future of human–robot relations

The New Breed: What Our History with Animals Reveals About Our Future with Robots

Kate Darling
Henry Holt and Co
256 pp.
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Long hidden from public view on factory floors, robots today are increasingly located in spaces where they exist alongside humans. This development has generated considerable hand-wringing. Will robots eventually take our jobs? Will they replace human romantic partners? In The New Breed, Kate Darling argues that equating robots with humans deprives us of our ability to determine the fate of humanity in a robot-filled world. She argues that our relationships with animals present an analogy more suitable for predicting how society will evolve as robots become part of it.

Darling begins by illustrating how animals have long held roles that only seem to elicit concern when robots enter the conversation. We have domesticated donkeys to plow fields, brought dogs into battle, and directed birds to deliver messages. Robots, she argues, like animals before them, will augment human abilities, not replace humans altogether. 

Whether humans become obsolete is a choice not an inevitability, and this decision must be placed in the context of the institutions that structure our lives. Crucially, Darling identifies capitalism as the culprit responsible for “encourag[ing] short-term corporate profit incentives rather than long-term investments in humans.” Our “moral panic” about the robot invasion is misplaced, she argues. Instead, we should devote our energy to “holding our governments and corporations accountable and demanding that our economic and political systems do better for people.” 

The book’s second section deals with companionship between humans and robots. Here Darling’s own research shines brightly. In opposition to those who contend that humans should treat robots like tools or that roboticists should not design intelligent machines to look like humans, Darling demonstrates that we are hardwired to perceive nonhumans capable of movement and other abilities as possessing vitality. “Our desire to anthropomorphize…isn’t going away,” she notes. This is an important point too often missed by critics of humanoid robotics who mistakenly believe that we can circumvent questions about moral status by ignoring the innate human tendency to project ourselves onto other beings.

Darling’s chapter on animal companions is an enjoyable one that even those who have no interest in robots would likely relish. Here, she reminds us that humans have a long history of establishing meaningful relationships with animals. Therefore, in principle, there is no reason why we could not also forge important ties with robots. The next chapter adds that, following our trajectory with animals, robots “will become a new type of relationship altogether” and, despite our anthropomorphic urges, “we’re unlikely to confuse them with the alternative.”

Darling believes we should be less worried about forming relationships with robots and more worried about how these relationships could be exploited. If we fail to take an “intentional” approach to robot design, she insists, we leave ourselves vulnerable to corporate coercion, reinforcing biases, and invasions of privacy. Strong regulations and enforcement mechanisms will be needed to avoid these potential pitfalls.

The book’s final section addresses how humans should treat robots. Here the literature on animal rights makes a late but essential entrance. While our treatment of animals is “rife with inconsistencies,” empathy, she maintains, might be the key to understanding our obligations toward robots. Perhaps to the disappointment of some, Darling suggests that our emotions, not our reason, might best guide the design of legal protections for intelligent machines. 

The New Breed offers readers an energetic and witty overview of how our relations with animals can deliver useful insights into how robots might be incorporated into human society, but a couple of weaknesses might catch the attention of specialists. Darling’s emphasis on human needs and empathy, for example, reinforces the kind of anthropocentric thinking that has produced animal suffering and ecological devastation. In addition, her exclusive focus on Western philosophy and law gives short shrift to important ideas about the relational personhood of nonhuman entities and the fundamental interconnectedness of all life forms that are articulated in Eastern and Indigenous worldviews. Despite these shortcomings, this book succeeds in arresting the alarmism that has pervaded recent popular writing on robots. 

Darling ultimately makes a strong case that while our future will indeed include robots, it remains up to us to decide how to adjust our systems to accommodate our new companions. By examining the past and present of our relationships with animals, she shows how we might learn lessons that will help us shape our technological future for the better.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of North Florida, Jacksonville, FL 32224, USA, and the author of Rights for Robots: Artificial Intelligence, Animal and Environmental Law (Routledge, 2020).