Can robots care? And why should we care if they do? SAPIENS host Jen Shannon meets Pepper the robot, and host Chip Colwell goes on a quest to find out how the robotics industry is (re)shaping intimacy in Japan. He speaks with anthropologists Jennifer Robertson, Daniel White, and Hirofumi Katsuno, all researchers who investigate the field of robotics, to learn more about what artificial emotion can teach us about what it means to be human.
Even before Ashanté Reese and I reach the front gate, retired schoolteacher Alice Chandler is standing in the doorway of her brick home in Washington, D.C. She welcomes Reese, an anthropologist whom she has known for six years, with a hug and apologizes for having nothing to feed us during this spontaneous visit.
Chandler, 69 years old, is a rara avis among Americans: an adult who has lived nearly her entire life in the same house. This fact makes her stories particularly valuable to Reese, who has been studying the changing food landscape in Deanwood, a historically black neighborhood across the Anacostia River from most of the city.
When Chandler was growing up, horse-drawn wagons delivered meat, fish, and vegetables to her doorstep. The neighborhood had a milkman, as did many U.S. communities in the mid-20th century. Her mother grew vegetables in a backyard garden and made wine from the fruit of their peach tree.
I have never understood why anybody would think humans are by nature violent, warlike creatures. True, we have all surely had arguments turn sour and go off the rails—arguments sometimes so extreme, or even deadly, that we later wish we could take back what we have said and undo what has happened. So yes, we humans do have the physical and emotional capacity to be nasty and even violent creatures when we feel threatened or frightened. Yet if there is anything about being human written in our genes by evolution, it’s not that we are dangerous animals. Instead, it’s that we are one of Earth’s strongly social life forms. Some of us may not be as social as others. Yet most of us know that the words “gosh, I need a hug” are about more than just a sudden call for physical contact. Most of us not only want to be around others, we also need to be. That’s just being human.