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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Robot rights and wrongs

Well, now that all the world's problems have been solved we can finally turn our attention to the burning issues facing future generations, namely, robot rights. Today in London, robot ethicists (scientists) discussed the coming landmine (pun, see below) of robot-human relations. Such questions as, "who is to blame if an intelligent robot kills someone – is it the designer, the manufacturer, the operator or the machine itself?" Or is it the scientist class as a whole that dodged their ethical responsibility to humanity and allowed such monstrosities to be created in the first place? That's my question, not theirs, of course.

The arrival of interactive sex-robots will presumably raise equally difficult issues which, we should rest assured, today's scientists are just drooling to grapple with, despite never having adequately dealt with the destructive implications of any of their past research in any systematic way.
High on the Rome agenda will be the issue of sexual relations between humans and machines. Dr David Levy, author of a paper on robot prostitution being presented at the conference, claims that sexbots, like Jude Law's Gigolo Joe character in the Spielberg film A.I., will be commonplace in just 40 years. "I think robots will be developed that have the emotional capability to encourage humans to fall in love with them," he said.

High street retailers are already considering the possibilities. Gordon Lee, from the Ann Summers chain, said: "It's not far away from happening but there definitely need to be ethics involved. We'd always want to make sure there would be foreplay."
Nevertheless, scientists wonder: should robots be given rights equal to humans?

Of course, the real troubling development lurking around the corner - so troubling that it even has some scientists considering it - is the increasing use of robots in warfare.
Noel Sharkey, a roboticist at the University of Sheffield who is a regular contributor to the BBC's Robot Wars, agreed, but he said there were more immediate concerns. "The idea of machine consciousness and rights is ... a bit of a fairy tale as far as I'm concerned," he said. "My concern is about public safety. I think we need proper, informed, public debate about where we are going with robotics at the moment. We need to tell the public about what's going on in robotics and ask them what they want."

Last year the South Korean military unveiled a robot border guard built by Samsung that can shoot targets up to 500 metres away. He said these could be programmed with a shoot-to-kill policy. The US, meanwhile, is on the way to achieving its goal of replacing one third of its ground vehicles with autonomous robots.

"It would be great if all the military were robots and they could fight each other, but that's not going to be the case," he said. "My biggest concern there is that it goes against the body bag politics. If you don't have body bags coming home, you can start a war much more easily."

Once robots become more common in warfare, he predicted they would be used more widely in policing and surveillance; so far there has been very little serious and informed public debate on these issues.

Offenders could, he suggested, be monitored at home by a guard robot and the streets could be patrolled by mobile robot CCTV. They could also be used to deal with riots and other civil disturbances, he predicted. "Imagine the miners' strike with robots armed with water cannon."
I addressed this development not long ago in a PI article, so those interested in some of the class war implications of this technology might be want to check out that article ('2007: The Year Skynet Went Online'). Suffice it to say, however, that while the scientists are wrangling with the issue of rights, class war anarchists ought to be considering the way these technologies will shift power ever more into the hands of the ruling class and a small number of subservient scientists and technicians.

I commend Sharkey for admitting that human debate must take place about the applications of these technologies. Still, I find his take on robots as far too optimistic. He defends the tired old scientific mantra that technologies are merely neutral and reflect only the will of their possessor. Consider this from another article about the conference:
Like all technologies, Sharkey says, the problem with robotics lies in its applications.

"We can imagine lots of frightening scenarios," he said, adding that it is up to the public to decide how robots should be employed.

"If they are used properly, robots will ultimately benefit mankind."
No matter what use this tech finds, it will surely be a reflection of the narrow technocratic class that created it and the capitalist and political/bureaucratic class that funds, develops and deploys it. Such technologies, developed in that environment, cannot help but serve those masters. There is no way they can be used properly. Their flaws are in their development.

Already, South Korea has plans to deploy an armed and partially aware robot on the border. If we want a look at the future, perhaps we would do well to consider this video of the monstrosity in action. Watch it and ask yourself first, how anyone could be justified in developing it and, second, is this application a deviation from or a direct result of the nature of robotics? Now imagine it self-aware and able to choose its own targets. Then imagine it policing your neighborhood. Or breaking your strike. Or raiding your house. Time to smash some machines.

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