The Humanity of Robots (3)

27 Apr

In the realm of fact and fiction there have been many horrors perpetrated by humanity; on the other hand, there has been a greater measure of actual good things born out of our efforts (after all, we’re still alive and kicking after a million years or so of evolution). Are we just lucky, or have we been doing some things right to survive thus far?

Whatever the case, it could all easily change for the worse.

Because for the foreseeable future and if current trends continue in robotics, humanity is now embarking upon the planned obsolescence of our own species.  Not only embarking upon, but embracing it with open and willing arms – at least for the present.

Understand: I’m not talking about the eradication of humanity. I’m simply claiming that the rise of the machines – robots of all kinds – will, given enough time, eventually jeopardize the social and economic usefulness of most humans.  In the future that is coming, only a relatively small core of humanity will be required for key political, social, economic and military tasks.

To be sure, there will be great benefits with the use of pervasive robots throughout society: by and large, humanity will be freed of the tiresome, daily duties required of the body and will be able to concentrate most energy into the creativity of the mind – the world of ideas. On the other hand, we might simply evolve into spherical eating machines pampered by a 24/7 direct connect into the glabble (aka global babble). Either way, robots will eventually (be allowed to) take over the manual operation of the entire planet. Shoot, machine intelligence automatically operates and maintains most of the world now anyway, in all types of electronic communications.

We won’t see perfect androids, though, for a long time: not in my lifetime and not in that of my grand-children. The AI software now available is probably only at the level of a five-year-old child. Will the equivalent of  Moore’s Law apply to AI as the years roll on? Well, in view of the fact that the law, so called, applies to computer hardware only, the major effect would be that the robot brain would simply process data and instructions more quickly; Moore’s Law says nothing about improving AI software per se, the crux of robot intelligence.

However, if humanity continues with robot applications such as this as a possible example , so that it eventually becomes a clear and common presence, we are then on the proverbial slippery slope to societal oblivion.

In the first place, humanity appears to have lost its way when it devotes so much time and resources to the perpetual promulgation of war. So, it’s understandable and appropriate – in fact, necessary – that we should educate ourselves about efforts to prevent the cancer-like growth of robots into all of war’s facets.

For example, marine and robotics engineers are developing robotic jellyfish (Seabot? Aquabot?), and other marine machines, that could be used to patrol the seven seas, a collaborative effort “funded by U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center and the Office of Naval Research.” Roll on funding for the Pentagon, no?

More urgent perhaps, there are now calls warning that killer robots are coming, and even suggestions, from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that killer robots should be banned. If you want to read the full report from HRW, you can download it here. In addition, there is now a growing global campaign to stop the production and use of killer robots; access this link if you are interested in joining that effort.

None of the foregoing, and much more, should be surprising though. Ever since ancient humans began to use tools, humanity has been developing new and more efficient ways to kill. So, developing autonomous robots to do the job of searching, spying, surveilling, monitoring, fighting, killing and so on, does have benefits from the military perspective. And when compared to using human soldiers, the cost of maintaining an android army is much less, for obvious reasons. However, not until AI software reaches the sophistication of the lowest level human grunt in any army will autonomous killer robots (killbots) become a reality.

That particular day truly is a long, long way off – for which we should be truly thankful.

What is more likely in the near future, realistically, is a hybrid killbot: just as drones (UAVs) in Afghanistan are controlled by jockeys located far from harm, it’s conceivable and practical to use a similar type of human handler to remotely operate a killbot on the ground. Such a machine would function basically as a remote-controlled, ultra-sophisticated, electromechanical bipedal device: Terminator on an electronic leash, if you will. Moreover, problematic aspects of “the humanity of robots” would thereby be sidelined: all responsibility and accountability would remain with each handler/soldier, and up the chain of command. From what I’ve seen on video from DARPA, such a hybrid could be a reality within twenty years.

So much then for robots with some sort of humanity? Well, not quite: there are examples of machine intelligence that is intriguing. I’ve mentioned aspects in other posts, but this article is one more that shows how roboticists are slowly beginning to understand how to get robots to relate to humans. That sort of progress gives hope that the future to come is not as bleak as some might think.

And with some tongue-in-cheek pizzazz, these writers show how AI is indeed clever in a number of ways, including art, music and even being “self-aware”. However, just as there is nothing intrinsically human about intelligence, we’ve had chimpanzee and  elephant art around for many years. All that machine intelligence shows is evidence of exceedingly thorough system design and programming based upon what we humans learn as we grow.

Finally, as if to answer some of the issues I’ve broached above, watch this TED video of four academics and experts in robotics and communications. Let them explain why our humanity must always take precedence over anything we construct, and most of all, over the increasingly intelligent machines with which we are enmeshed in a symbiotic, neo-Frankensteinian struggle of potentially epic proportions.  And keep this in mind: if that symbiosis ever withers and dies when robots are fully autonomous, humanity better have a fail-safe Plan B.

If that isn’t enough for you, there is still another aspect to address: the physical hybrid of human and machine called cyborg – either fully integrated or using exo-skeleton. Until next time…

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