But robots have come a long way in recent years. Bill Gates recently said that we are standing at the dawn of a new era in robotics, likening this present age in robotic technology to where the computer industry was about 30 years ago. In the coming years, he says, we should expect robots to be a part of our daily lives. And we’re not talking about dumb vacuum cleaners or drinks dispensers here, but flying, walking, crawling, intelligent and autonomous artificial helpers.
Does this all sound far-fetched? Well don’t be too sure because experts in artificial intelligence have just published a stark warning that we must start to tackle some tricky ethical and legal issues now.
Welcome to the fascinating, bizarre and slightly frightening world of of robotics…
This is the Future of Robotics
So far, robots have been useful as remote-controlled servants, assisting us in all the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs no-one really wants to do. Factory “bots” can work tirelessly and faster than any human hands, Bomb-disposal robots save numerous lives every day and unmanned aerial vehicles patrol the skies performing military reconnaissance for longer than any human crew could.
But like a Dalek in a rage, technology is charging inevitably onwards. The next-generation of robots are a whole different breed; the models currently being field tested are able to flatten themselves through tight gaps, climb walls and even perch on windowsills. These robots can fly, hover and swim. Many are insect-like but equipped with video, audio and GPS sensors. And like a colony of ants or bees, some of these devices are engineered to use ‘swarm’ intelligence, allowing them to communicate with each other to work as a team – all completely autonomously and without the need for a human driver.
It might sound frightening, but the possibilities are amazing. Had this technology existed on September 11th, 2001, a swarm of rescue-bots might have been able to search for survivors in the rubble of ‘Ground Zero’. Cyborg helpers could enter burning buildings without risking the life of another firefighter. They could even lend an unshaking helping hand to a surgeon during delicate open heart surgery. This should be an exciting time, but many are terrified – and with some good reason. The main driving force behind many these advances are far from altruistic…
Military Spy Bots are Leading the Way
Here in Britain it is often said we live in a ‘surveillance society’ and we allegedly have more CCTV cameras per person than anywhere else. In reality, most of this footage is unwatched simply because of to a pure lack of manpower. A fusion of robotics and artificial intelligence could dramatically change this and bring espionage to a whole new level. Rights to privacy would be in serious question if tiny teams of artificial spies with face and voice recognition were set to work by police and military. Researchers at the University of Seoul are even programming robots with ‘sneaking algorithms’ which allow them to pursue a ‘target’ whilst taking precautions to hide and evade detection. James Bond would be liking his lips at the possibility if he weren’t so worried that his job was on the line!
We Should Act Now
Professor Lin and his colleagues at California Polytechnic State University put forward convincing arguments in this month’s journal of Artificial Intelligence that now is the time to act. Technology will not stop progressing – but this shouldn’t be something to fear. Human civilisation hasn’t yet collapsed since the advent of genetic engineering, stem cell research and test-tube babies. The same will be true of robotics and artificial intelligence, providing clear moral and ethical boundaries are put in place. Each new technology represents an opportunity to benefit humankind: Genetic screening and DNA analysis have solved murders and helped many live a healthier life. But from the start of the human genome project it took US Congress a staggering 18 years to pass laws that prevented discrimination through genetic tests.
As we stand on the brink of the age of the robot, so now should be the time for careful consideration of robot laws and policies that protect civil liberties, uphold moral values without stifling innovation. All of us who care should brave up and start debating big questions like “Who is responsible if a robot breaks the law?” and “Does an autonomous robot ever have rights?” These questions may sound odd in today’s world of robotic vacuum cleaners and toy dinosaurs; but waiting until tomorrow could be too late.
Thanks for reading, your comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!
German Researchers show off Hovering Robots that juggle ping-pong balls!
The highly acclaimed book ‘Wired for War‘ by P. W. Singer explored the use of Robots in the battlefield.
David Bond tries to disappear in ‘Surveillance Britain‘ (Times Online)
The US Military gets accused of using insect spy robots (Telegraph)
Would this possibly be the Coolest Robot Toy ever?! (YouTube)
Lin, P., Abney, K., & Bekey, G. (2011). Robot ethics: Mapping the issues for a mechanized world Artificial Intelligence, 175 (5-6), 942-949 DOI: 10.1016/j.artint.2010.11.026
Calo, M. (2011). Peeping Hals Artificial Intelligence, 175 (5-6), 940-941 DOI: 10.1016/j.artint.2010.11.025