Empire 109

When sophisticated robots emerge from factories  and enter society, the complexity of our world is going to vastly increase, but it won’t always be pretty.

Robot/artificial intelligence researcher Illa Reza Nourbaksh of MIT, in his book Robot Futures, tells of his robot Vagabond that could navigate rooms and corridors, avoid people etc. One day they were ‘pushing the limits’ with it, so Vagabond was out of sight several buildings away, in areas where there were tourists. When he went to check on it, he says:

“I saw the robot – a two-foot-high black cylinder with a Powerbook 150 laptop latched on top – at the far end of the corridor, with two people standing next to it: a tall man in cowboy boots and a woman. I was 25 meters away and as I walked towards Vagabond I realized what they were doing. The woman was blocking the robot’s path, keeping it still, and the man was kicking the robot on the side, hard. Hard enough that the robot was tipping and righting itself on every kick……… I started running, and as I neared them they began walking away and the man said, “I’m still smarter.” In all our programming, in all our obstacle-detection logic built into the LISP code, we had never accounted for this particular possibility – man kicking robot to show off to girlfriend. It was a turning point in my realization that robots will cause human behavior that we may find very surprising indeed.”

When I read that, I had this thought – here, wearing cowboy boots, is the result of two million years of human evolution. This is how of use the biggest biological brain on earth – for the stupid obstruction of a research robot to make ourselves feel superior.

I won’t go into the fact that for the past 30,000 years, since the invention of tribalism, the human brain has been physically shrinking, or that this accelerated with the advent of civilization. I don’t think that’s the immediate cause of the epidemic of stupidity and violence that seems to be getting worse now as the years advance.

But it was a relief to me to at least find someone thinking about these problems. Look at what else Nourbaksh says:

“We can be quite sure that early robots…..will be easy to fool using crude human tricks, and there will be a plethora of willing people interested in testing legally indistinct boundaries to entertain themselves at a robot’s expense. The gates will be lifted for the early release of robots into the wild, and any laws governing human-robot interactions will certainly be born as reactions to side effects rather than as proactive laws designed in advance. Law will not guide good human-robot relations.” [p.60]

In other words, we are doing almost nothing to prepare society for this new technology. But that’s no surprise. We did nothing to prepare for the industrial revolution. We did almost nothing to prepare for, or prevent two world wars. Looking ahead is not humanity’s forte.

The problem though is that if we wait until the genie is out of the bottle, it may be too late. The internet is causing no end of problems, but the source of those problems is not the internet – it is the human appetite for selfishness, deception, dishonesty and other dark behavior.

So, if Nourbaksh is right, we are about to meet a new side to human darkness.

If sentient robots have no rights, they may become slaves, subject to the vagaries of perverse human appetites. They will probably be assaulted in the streets. Though their sentience – and their sensitivity – will eventually exceed our own, many humans will insist on their right to demean, torture and destroy them.

This has been examined for decades in science fiction. In his robot novels, Isaac Asimov demonstrated how intelligent robots will probably suffer because of their subservience to humans, even while some of them (like Daneel and Giskard in Robots and Empire) vastly exceed humans in intelligence and are secretly guiding and protecting human civilization.

But there is room to be positive here, even with respect to humanity. For these superintelligent machines that are coming will be a creation of humanity. They will be proof, I think, that humanity is capable of good as well as evil. The good that they accomplish will be the main story of the future, not our treatment of them.

They may save us from ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Rescuing the Future | Artificial Intelligence | Humanizing robots and Dehumanizing humans

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