A German Shepherd Police dog sits on top of his patrol car looking alert.

Book review: ‘The New Breed’ by Kate Darling

Image credit: John Roman/Dreamstime

A world-renowned robot ethics expert at MIT explores the growing relationship between machines and humans based on our history with animals.

To this day, many people are sceptical about the growing use of robots across all matters of life, ranging from robots placed in factories to aid in manufacturing parts or a social robot giving a care home resident company. But Dr Kate Darling, a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab, argues that: “when we assume robots will inevitably automate human jobs and replace friendships, we’re not thinking creatively about how we design and use the technology, and we don’t see the choices we have in shaping the broader systems around it.”

Indeed, in her book ‘The New Breed: How to Think About Robots’ (Penguin Random House, £20, ISBN 9780241352991), Darling offers a different analogy to how we could perceive robots – through our historical and continuous relationship with animals. “Throughout history, we’ve used animals for work, weaponry, and companions,” she writes. “Like robots, animals can sense, make their own decisions, act on the world, and learn. And like robots, animals perceive and engage with the world differently than humans. That’s why for millennia, we’ve relied on animals to help us do the things we couldn’t do alone.”

Darling argues that in using these autonomous and sometimes unpredictable agents in all walks of life, such as horses drawing carriages and training police dogs to sniff out explosives or drugs at airports, we have not replaced, but rather supplemented, our own relationships and skills.

In using this analogy, Darling first explores how we are integrating such technologies into our spaces and systems, and draws parallels with how we have used animals in the past to help in certain tasks or events. One example she describes is when the US military started making more extensive use of dog soldiers during the Second World War. These dogs started out guarding domestic facilities, then were trained to hunt, guard, and also for sniffing services. This example is one of many, that Darling hopes, will help readers think about the similarities between the use of animals in combat (as an example) and the use of robots under the same circumstances.

She then delves into our conversations of the future, questioning whether robots will replace our jobs and whether artificial intelligence is a threat, among others. Here, she aims to illustrate how our perception of robots as ‘quasi-humans’ – which suggests that humans could differ from what we are under different circumstances – shape such conversations. She hopes the animal analogy outlined throughout the book changes this narrative.

Darling also explores emerging developments in robot companions, using social robots as an example. Here, she argues that if you look back through history with animal companions such as dogs, this squashes the human-replacement stigma attached to our emotional connection with robots. She then looks to the future, and how we may perceive the world of robot rights using her animal analogy. She argues that when looking at the path of Western animal rights; it provides a different angle for how a potential future robot rights movement could pan out.  

In ‘The New Breed’, Darling is adamant that our past and present relationship with animals has the potential to translate into our relationship with the robots of today and in the future. The book is well researched and provides excellent examples of times throughout history where humans and animals have worked hand in hand. It also proposes scenarios of whether this could take humans into more meaningful, less fearful bonds with robots.

Overall, Darling reframes how we should perceive these growing technologies through her animal analogy, presenting a rather nuanced approach to how we can work alongside robots rather than in fear of them. This book is certainly a good read for those particularly interested in ethics involving robots.

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