Tuesday, May 26, 2009
No killer robots soon
I'm reading this Slate article about whether you should be worried about robots eventually taking over. The author of that article has a "Harvard Ph.D. in security studies" and "helped write the new president's defense policy agenda". The article was disappointing.
The point he misses is that today's robots are not autonomous. The "Umanned Aerial Vehicles" (UAVs) dropping bombs in Afghanistan still have pilots, it's just that the pilots are located at a military base safely in a bunker rather in the vehicle itself. They don't make decisions to drop bombs, those decisions are likewise made by people, then remote signals sent to the UAV to drop them.
What we have today is not "robotics" so much as "telerobotics". They aren't mechanical soldiers so much as remote tools used by human soldiers -- soldiers who are not in harms way.
I'm an investor in a company that makes remote controlled guns that can, among other things, be controlled through the Internet. They sell them to the military. One of the main features is how and when these devices will actually fire a weapon.
The next level of telerobotics is "programmed response". My companies telerobitic guns have the feature where they can remember scans of the environment, and if something appears in the environment that doesn't belong there, the guns will swivel around, aim at the object, and shoot it. Yet, this still a sort of telerobotics: while the device itself chose to shoot, it did so on precisely programmed responses. It's still humans in control, with the robotics doing precisely what they are told to do.
I've walked past one of these units and had the gun slowly swivel as it followed me across the room. It's a bit unnerving. You do get a Terminator-like, sinister feeling about the device, yet, there is no intelligence lurking back there. It's just following lines of code.
When the robots rise up and enslave us, they won't be the military robots, but our personal robots like washing machines, toasters, and cars. The military is a bunch of control freaks. They don't like the idea of anything, not even their own soldiers, making decisions on their own.
Finally, I'd like to point out that this problem is "AI-complete". The robotic revolution requires artificial intelligence (AI), and if we ever perfect AI, we'll have a lot more to worry about than the errant robot.