TCS Daily


Are We Ready for Robots?

By Gregory Scoblete - March 21, 2005 12:00 AM

The robots are coming.

Last month, at a trade show in Orlando, Florida, Sony Electronics invited the media to a launch party for some new products. Our host was QRIO, Sony's robot "ambassador" who entertained the crowd with a little song and dance routine. It was fine enough, as far as robot song and dance routines go. But as I watched the diminutive QRIO gyrate, a darker thought crept into my mind. What if QRIO tired of its vaudeville shtick and desired something a little more interactive.

I pictured QRIO's green eyes darkening, before suddenly leaping off the stage onto the throat of the closest onlooker. Before the stunned crowd could react, QRIO revealed its other tricks: concealed tasers and pepper spray guns. The blinded and electrified onlookers proved no match for the relentless QRIO as it cut a swath of destruction toward the exit. When the authorities finally gunned QRIO down (inside a Best Buy trying to liberate the DVD players), it had left dozens dead and hundreds wounded in its wake.

Alas, QRIO stuck to the script and we endured the rest of the product presentation. But as robots make their way from the obscurity of the lab to the light of human society, our minds, conditioned by years of sci-fi dystopias, sense danger. We instinctively ask: are we on a collision course with our own creations?

Robot Nightmares

For as long as we have been imagining and dreaming about robots, we've been worrying about them. Czech playwright Karel Capek is generally credited with coining the word "robot" (the Czech word robota means forced labor or servitude) in his 1921 play R.U.R. (for Rossum's Universal Robots). Capek's robots were conceived to be tools of man, but dangerous ones, harboring the seeds of rebellion in their electronic consciousness. In R.U.R. the robots rebel and extirpate their human masters. It is a morality play repeated throughout science fiction: man invents robot, robot achieves conscious awareness, robot decides it doesn't like hauling trash for the man, robot goes nuts, remaining humanity forced to eek out a miserable existence underground learning Kung-Fu from Laurence Fishburne.

Isaac Asimov anticipated such dangers when he stipulated his famous "three laws" of robotics to ensure human safety in a world saturated with potentially dangerous robots. While clever, the laws are largely beside the point. By the time we are able to create robots capable of internalizing, and potentially violating, the three laws, we will have confronted more serious issues of the nature and meaning of consciousness. In other words, the real concern with robots is not their potential for war and rebellion (exciting though that is), but the ethical questions raised by their construction and application.

Tomorrow's Dilemmas Today

Given current robotic capability, this may sound a like a bit of a stretch. Professor Noel Sharky, a robotics expert, recently dismissed fears of a robot apocalypse by likening their current capabilities beneath that of "simple bacteria". It would be foolish, however, to write off human technical ingenuity and the pace of innovation. What are simple bacteria today could be advanced life forms tomorrow.

Consider this recent article in the Washington Post. In Japan, robots are used "as receptionists, night watchmen, hospital workers, guides, pets and more." Indeed, the "onslaught of new robots" has prompted the government to begin work establishing safety rules for robot use in home and work environments. As any astute technology watcher knows, where Japan leads, the U.S. eventually follows[1] (albeit less colorfully).

Much of the debate on the intersection of technology and politics at the highest levels of government has focused on the impact of biotechnology. There is, for instance, the President's Council on Bioethics that is formulating policy guidelines in areas such as stem cell research, cloning and life extension technology.

Biotechnology naturally garners the most attention because the science visibly intrudes onto some fundamental ethical terrain regarding human life, its purpose and its protection. But research and development into robots is prodding some of the same boundaries

The Washington Post article mentioned above ended with a touching, if somewhat bizarre, tale of 89-year-old Sumi Kasua who lives alone in a nursing home comforted only by a robot seal. If, as in Kasua's case, the bonds of human empathy extend to robots as they do to real life pets, how should these robots be treated, legally? Like a dog or a cat, or like an expensive appliance? Consider that this empathy between robot and human can only solidify as future generations of children grow up in a world of increasingly humanoid robots. Will destroying a robot that is essential to the mental health of the elderly be a more serious crime than simply breaking an expensive television?

As advances in robot design continue, we'll be confronted with the same conundrum we face in biotechnology: not how far can we go but how far should we go? In this case, how much intelligence, creativity and most importantly, independence, should we endow robots with? How do we treat them if they become largely independent actors? How "human" should we make them in appearance and behavior? In our litigious society, who is culpable for robotic misuse or failure? Who bears moral responsibility for collateral damage if a robot, programmed to react independent of human command, opens fire on a village? Where are the moral "red lines" -- if any -- that should not be crossed?

Then there are the more lurid, yet nonetheless predictable, applications: robot "escorts." Will this be legal where human prostitution is not? Would it be considered infidelity if a spouse indulged a robotic passion? (I'm imaging the robots would look like people, not C3P0.) Would creating a robot escort that looked like a celebrity be a crime, or a booming licensing business?

The more troubling aspects, for religious conservatives, are the ramifications of artificial intelligence, which dovetails with robotics. The underlying research in this field aims at understanding how consciousness works, how the brain makes decisions, how it reacts to stimuli and how it understands the workings of other conscious beings around it. If in their quest for more advanced robots, scientists succeed in untangling some of the mysteries of consciousness -- if they deduce that intelligence, creativity, and emotion are simply a matter of chemicals and electricity and not a "divine spark" -- how will that influence our understanding of the uniqueness and supremacy of human consciousness? Will corporations be allowed to endow artificial creations with such uniquely human qualities? Can we stop them?

If religious conservatives reject the theory of human development from primates, how will they react to confirmation that some of the most majestic elements of human thought and achievement can be reproduced artificially?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know that they need asking now, in the infancy of robotics. The public bioethics debate only gathered steam after the cloning of Dolly, i.e. after the horses (sheep?) had already started leaving the barn. Now, one could plausibly argue, advances in biotechnology are outpacing the important ethical and legal discussions that would guide our hand. This is not an argument in favor of banning or otherwise impeding the development of robots, far from it. It is simply a reminder that society-altering technology has downsides, upsides and unintended consequences. The more time we take grappling with all of the above, the better.

After all, as much as I relish the idea of kung-fu lessons, life in a robot-dominated dystopia is not exactly how I planned to spend my private retirement savings account.



[1] The Japanese electronics giant Hitachi just unveiled its first humanoid robot, Emiew (Excellent mobility and interactive existence as workmate) which can run at a speed of 3.7mph. The World Expo, held this month in Japan, will be crawling with robots. According to the Post, 2005 has been (unofficially) coined "The Year of the Robot."

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