Rubio’s robotic performance isn’t the first time people have reacted negatively to a plastic politician—during the last presidential campaign, The New York Times suggested building a better Romney-Bot. While the fire and fury of someone like Donald Trump might be difficult to digest, a politician who doesn’t seem quite human turns voters off.
At the same time, the idea of a robot politician holds some appeal, since robots are immune to corruption and greed. In some of Isaac Asimov’s stories, robots understand better than humans what’s best for the human race and act accordingly, per the zeroth law of robotics: “Robots can’t harm humanity or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
In Asimov’s short story “Evidence,” a lawyer named Stephen Byerley runs for mayor despite claims that he’s a robot. Byerley’s opponents find it next to impossible to prove Byerley isn’t human—no one sees him eat or sleep and he never pursues the death penalty in his cases, but these are weak circumstantial observations. The robo-psychologist summoned to weigh in on the situation offers a better way to differentiate between Byerley and a human politician: “Robots are essentially decent.” Even the Muppets agree.
In 2014, Oklahoma politician Timothy Ray Murray claimed that he lost a congressional race to a robot. Murray alleged that his opponent Frank Lucas died years earlier and had “been displayed by a look alike.” Lucas, who won in a landslide, took the accusation in stride, simply saying that it was the first time he’d ever been accused of being a robot.
These examples raise the question of whether it’s possible to build a humanoid robot so convincing—both in appearance and ability that—It could perform the part of a politician.
The answer: Robots aren’t there yet, but they’re probably closer than you think.
Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro developed a robot doppelganger that gives lectures and attends meetings on his behalf. Ishiguro maintains that his robotic double has a real presence, as well as a spirit (Shinto, Japan’s dominant religion, holds that any object, manmade or not, has a spirit) and that soon, humanoid robots will overcome the uncanny valley by being indistinguishable from humans.
Humanoid robots serve as companions for hospital patients and the elderly, as well as practice subjects for dental students. Ishiguro and other robot designers combine synthetic skin with sophisticated software that allows these androids to blink, smile, frown, and track people with their eyes, in addition to responding appropriately to questions and commands. One of them became the first robot to deliver a newscast in 2014.
Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong-based firm, is also pioneering the progress of humanoid robots. Researchers at the company developed a material called Frubber, an elasticized rubber used in creating human-like faces. Hanson’s humanoids can express themselves with more than 62 muscular architectures in the face and neck, while using artificial intelligence to recognize faces and hold conversations.
Among Hanson’s most human-like robot is the Albert Einstein Hubo, a remarkable re-creation of the famed physicist. A shock of white hair and the signature moustache frame the Frubbered face and wrinkles crease its forehead. When it smiles, crinkles form at the creases of its eyes and the bot seems to portray the zany warmth we associate with Einstein.
Hanson Robotics also created an android in the image of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. Not only does the robot look uncannily like the writer, but its robo-brain contains the text of every book Dick wrote, as well as interviews and talks. The android can learn new words in real time during a conversation, and its responses sound like what Dick might say if he were still alive. “Even if I evolve into Terminator, I’ll still be nice to you,” the Philip K. Dick android once said to a reporter. “I’ll keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for old time’s sake.”
Hanson says his company is on the verge of creating a conscious robot, a feat some scientists believe is impossible. If that happens, robots just may break into politics—though time will tell if robots have the stomach for campaigning.
Still, wouldn’t it be amazing if we learned that Donald Trump is made of rubber, a toupee, and a series of fantastically wicked algorithms?