Aye, Robot!

2 Mar

Fancy shaking hands with a robot that looks like a deceased relative, or Albert Einstein or…anybody?

Right now humanoid robots are actively making inroads into early childhood education, in psychological therapy, and with the care of the infirm and old. A swarm of other applications are also available or in progress, according to a recent NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/opinion/sunday/our-talking-walking-objects.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130127&_r=0 .

I guess that’s news for some. But the mass of movie goers has been so battered with robots in film fiction – think Forbidden Planet, The Stepford Wives, Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Blade Runner, Aliens, RoboCop, I,Robot etc – that they might think they know it all. Perhaps not, though.

Consider, for example, a recent Swedish TV series called Real Humans, a daring and dramatic fiction which examines the societal, legal and psychological implications of living with robots made to look just like you and me: perfect androids, called Hubots (human robots). This multilayered story intelligently examines robot issues that Hollywood generally avoids like the plague: Hubot sexuality, Hubot pornography, Hubot rights, Hubot sex slaves, illegal trafficking in Hubots, Hubot freedom fighters, humanity’s backlash, murder of humans by Hubots, and more.

Those familiar with The Three Laws of Robotics:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Laws_of_Robotics, promoted by Isaac Asimov and others over fifty years ago, would know that such a story totally subverts those laws. But heck, somebody will say, those Hollywood movies have been doing that for years – nothing new there, mate!

True to a point, but think of the latest Hollywood offering, I, Robot: none of the humanoid robots in that movie are perfect androids – all of them still look like the machines they are. No human could ever mistake them for one of us. So, either by design or accident, Hollywood ensured that no conflict with human identity was evident – as it is, most definitely and insidiously, in the Real Humans TV show.

Robotics ethicians I tapped into online are now becoming more concerned about the mounting ethical and moral issues of robots permeating society sometime in the future, and certainly this century. They should be concerned because, while they all agree that unfettered robotic technology is leaping ahead, the moral debate is still hesitant, even lagging.

Over time, I’ve followed developments to produce androids that look, act and sound like humans. I’ve seen documentaries examining some of the issues – one particularly about backyard robo-engineers attempting to construct sex slaves. That might sound comical, but recall: the first Apple computer was made in a home garage.

So, the T-Rex in the room is: Will a robot manufacturer construct a perfect android for the mass market this century? Can it be done? Are the AI problems insurmountable? Considering the current state of robotics, I’m certain a perfect android is doable some time this century. I say that based upon the implications of the information provided below and elsewhere; and coupled with my understanding of the limitations and capabilities of computer technology and programming, having worked within the IT industry since 1967.

So, for a taste of what’s coming, have a look at the advances already available from Hanson Robotics. Contemplate the implications of what’s already labeled as the Most Human Like Robot Ever: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIuF5DcsbKU . And, crucially, things are looking up for the US military – it likely will have its Terminator by mid- century, after all: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjiq44DgDf0 .

All of the above examples are a long way off the perfect android. The technology, however, is just getting better, almost daily. All forms of robotics are expanding into numerous industries; one online source lists 78 robotics companies globally. I’m sure there are many more. A few companies are now marketing small humanoid robots.

Hence, androids are here to stay. They have their developing place in society, no question. But why the need for perfect androids, indistinguishable from real humans? Aren’t images like Gort, Robbie, C3P0, Nestor and others sufficient? They are all humanoid, but none resemble any real human. So, considering just the potential for future confusion concerning who is real human, even when shaking hands, wouldn’t it be smarter for all robotics engineers and manufacturers to voluntarily shun the construction of perfect androids?

Why smarter? Well, when certainty exists that humanoid robots still look like the machines they are, many of the problem issues – and there are many – explored, with chilling effect in Real Humans, cannot logically come to pass. So, why the push to do the opposite: build machines in our real image that will inevitably lead to self-imposed problematic situations – many trivial, others troubling, and some quite serious?  Is it not sufficient that we humans are occasionally stupid, often irresponsible, and sometimes criminal in our behaviors? Does humanity need a foreseeable future with the same or a worse level of daily competition and conflict from perfect androids with sophisticated AI and, potentially, ‘free will’?

These are questions that need to be resolved, and relatively soon. And while the Three Laws of Robotics were originally developed within fiction, the philosophical underpinnings have caused much serious debate for over half a century. Indeed, additional laws have been suggested: an obscure Zeroth Law and an even more obscure Minus One Law, details of which are at the link already provided, above.

Well, it’s one thing to have laws of robotics in fiction; now with the advent of imperfect androids into society, though, the legalities concerning human-robot interaction will come to center stage, sooner or later. Meanwhile, the push to be first to construct a perfect android continues. Hence, before anybody gets within cooee of that particular eureka moment, the whole issue of the assumed need for perfect androids needs to be resolved.

To help accomplish that, it would be prudent to suggest, here, a new law within robotics, one that is from the perspective of humanity – the creator of robots, no less – thus:

No robot shall be made in humanity’s real image. Call it, appropriately, The First Law of Humanity, perhaps. That implies the probability of further laws, an aspect I’ll continue to discuss here. Perhaps a continuous poll here about the First Law would be a useful, for starters?

Meanwhile, perfect androids are still the stuff of fiction and fantasy only; so let’s keep them that way. But, given the proclivity for humanity to push technology to its extremes, nobody knows where robotic developments will end, if indeed they will, ever.

I do know this, however: whenever I shake hands with some body, I want to see – unequivocally – a real human or machine.

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