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Should we prepare for robot apartheid?

Assuming robots will be doing our ironing any day now, it's time to ask the big one: does the repression of a servile underclass matter if that underclass is made of plastic and metal?

Meeting the stunning Asimo robot the other day in Las Vegas, I wondered whether, in ten years, anthropomorphic robots like Asimo will experience a kind of racial prejudice in society -- and, if they do, will it matter?

If Asimo serves you a cold cup of coffee, is it morally acceptable to hit him?

Assuming robots will be doing our ironing, cleaning up our nuclear accidents, and rearing our children any day now, it's time to ask the big one: does the repression of a servile underclass matter if that underclass is made of plastic and metal?

Asimo looks and moves like a human child in a suit to me, and as Honda's Geoffrey Smith told me, we have nothing in our genetic make-up to help us understand what we're seeing. Our brains tell us instinctively that Asimo is alive, and Asimo is human. We know that Asimo is not real, however, and has no emotions -- so why treat him with respect? Why not push him about when we're angry, or shout at him when he makes a mistake?

Smith was very careful to refer to Asimo as 'it' rather than 'he', and he was also keen to emphasise the steps Honda has taken to dehumanise Asimo to some extent (the space-helmet head, the short stature). These measures are designed to minimise xenophobia in those who interact with Asimo. In this respect, Smith's job is like that of a hypothetical 'creator' who must concoct a new race to be introduced to society, a race specifically designed in style and dimensions to cause least offense.

Humanity has huge problems in dealing with the very slight racial variations present in our own species -- how would we deal with a race of robots? The arguments used by the civil-rights movement may not apply to mechanical beings with no emotions, but the psychological implications of beating or neglecting a child-like robot are almost as chilling.

Luckily someone much less drunk than me has thought this through at great length. Isaac Asimov explored the possibility of a robot race in his uncannily prescient book of short stories I, Robot. This is definitely worth reading -- or watching.

Here's the problem: if these robots end up looking and acting very much like us, it can't be a great reflection on us if we mistreat them. So, the message is clear: treat robots like you would humans -- after all, at some point, who will be able to tell the difference?

What do you think? Are you ready to accept a humanoid robot without prejudice, or will you stub out cigarettes on its cute little face?