The science and tech Spanish journalist Esther Paniagua currently writes for renowned media such as El País (Spanish newspaper), National Geographic, Ethic, Sifted (Financial Times), among others. Award-winning journalist Esther believes in an ethical journalism with a strong purpose that serves as a means for change. We had the opportunity to have a chat with Esther at Web Summit 2019, the biggest technological conference of the world. This is what she told us. 

Why is the presence of human-looking robots important in our current society?

I think that robots with a human appearance could be more harmful than helpful, as we are easier to manipulate by them if we see them as a “he” or a “she”, instead of an “it”. Human-looking robots mislead the public not only about what they are but also about what they can and cannot do. This kind of robots also reinforce science fiction utopias and dystopias about super-intelligent machines. That said, exceptions are allowed but they should be justified. There are pet-shaped robots being used to play with children in hospitals or as a companion for elderly people. There are also companion devices that say things such as “remember to drink water every hour” or “why don’t we dance?“, and detect just from the expression of people’s faces, what is the person feeling at the moment.

From my point of view, maybe robots are not the perfect solution to cure loneliness, since it always feels warmer to have a human person by your side. Robots can be a great solution to provide company and fight isolation, but we should not forget that robots will never be able to replace human connection or human contact. Never.

Tell me a surprising fact about robots which was striking for you.

I didn’t know about the existence of sexual robots with physical appearance of kids. That’s dangerous and should be immediately forbidden. This was the thing, that stroke me the most about robots and, more specifically, sexual robots. On the other hand, it’s not all bad about sexual robots: Marianne Brandon, psychologist, claims that sexual robots eventually could be beneficial for couples as an unconventional way to try something new, a toy to maintain a keep long-term sexual satisfaction. Besides, this type of robots can also assist with sexual dysfunctions. 

Do you think that robots could become a potential substitute of human contact? 

Of course, that’s a risk. For instance, in the case of having sexual robots do the work for us, there is a very scary possibility of men losing connection with women and become more misogynistic. It’s pretty obvious: if you lose contact with people, you will become less sociable. That’s dangerous, because we are innate social beings and we cannot be entirely happy or satisfied just with the mere company of a robot. It’s the same case of the smartphones: There are several cases of teenagers who prefer to be spending their time locked at home with their electronic devices, rather than going out and meeting people. They don’t need to be present in the reality, because their smartphones create their entire universe.

And not only teenager or young people: We can see that reality here at Web Summit, there are a lot of people who constantly check their schedules and messages, whilst running around from one pavilion to another, instead of being present. I think that in Europe we are becoming very disconnected from reality, because our universe starts and finishes on the phone.

Yes, that’s sad, but very true. Sometimes, I go out on a date with my boyfriend to a nice restaurant and we see the rest of the couples are staring at their phones all the evening. But the question is: What can we do? There is no way to stop it. In general, society is extremely addicted to be connected. I strongly believe that we are addicted to the idea of “being permanently connected”, rather than being addicted to the device itself. Nevertheless, I think that being radical in using restrictions to stop using our phones and computers is not the solution. We should be capable of taking the advantages, that technology offers us, to use electronical devices in a smart and harmless way without having to renounce to technology advances. Not everybody is prepared for that, but I hope that, with time, all of us will learn how to use technology wisely. 

What do you love so much about writing about science and technology? 

I love science and technology, so I decided to specialise in these fields. My favourite topics are related to ethic within technology, since artificial intelligence has made us to be aware to controversial ethical issues related to new technologies. Currently, I am keen on writing gender-related topics, as the gender gap on the ICT field is alarming. Globally, only 6 per cent of mobile application and software developers are female. Just 7 per cent of ICT patents in G20 countries are obtained by women, and only 10 per cent of technology start-up companies seeking venture capital funding were founded by women. In mid-2018, Wired magazine reviewed the AI research pages of leading technology companies and found that only between 10 and 15 per cent of researchers were women. Furthermore, many of these women working on ICT decide to quite their jobs because of discrimination, male co-optation, harassment, bullying… We, as journalists, have the responsibility to give voice to these female talents and to help this issue to gain visibility in order to achieve a global change of mentality.

Esther Paniagua at Web Summit 2019.