Sunday, July 11, 2010

Don't build killer robots


Lets assume there is such a thing as humanity's collective unconscious. Since 1818, humanity has had a collective nightmare about killer robots. (Arguably, Frankenstein's monster and the "robots" of R.U.R. were a reanimated corpse kludge and androids, respectively. But, for the sake of argument, let's stretch the definition of "robot" to mean "artificial human" and include any man-made, intelligent, autonomous humanoid, whether made of meat or metal.)

The thing that gets me is how long we've been afraid of this shit. Way before they were a remote technological possibility, killer robots gave us bad dreams. Why do you suppose that is? Hey ...

Maybe the Big Mind behind all our tiny little minds was trying to tell us something. Trying to warn us. Don't build killer robots. Klaatu, Finnegan, God, Cosmo, the phone company. Somebody Somewhere. Whatever name you call it, that entity was leaning on the alarm button. Don't build killer robots, you stupid naked apes. For the love of Me, don't build killer robots.

You'd think we'd get the message, right? Nah. Naked apes don't catch on that quick. But we do love our scary stories. By the 1930s, killer robots had become a science fiction cliche.

Killer robot stories pissed Isaac Asimov off. He responding to that cliche with the Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov reasoned that robots are machines created by humanity to serve humanity. We would never design autonomous machines that could kill people. The notion was idiotic! We wouldn't build killer robots any more than we'd build killer toasters. We'd design our robots so they couldn't kill people. We'd built the Three Laws in.

Nice try, Isaac. You and your logic. It's adorable.

But you can't stop the killer robot stories.

And in the year 2010 ...

Killer robots are still a science fiction cliche. The difference is, in spite of humanity's collective nightmare, we are now actually building killer robots. Nobody's even thinking about installing them with the Three Laws. Hell no! Various military subcontractors are just cranking these babies out. The spawn crawling out of Boston Dynamics is straight out of The Book of Revelations. And that's just the early stuff! The crystal radio stage of killer robots evolution! In the typical cycle of high-tech product development, the killer robots are getting smarter, stronger, faster and better. Why?

Because, in spite of all the bad dreams, well-paid naked apes with engineering degrees are designing them that way. 

I don't want to sound like a Luddite.

But that strikes me as a bad idea.

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