The impact of advanced robotic engineering (part 2)

Robots and the Internet of Things

The vast majority of machines is of highly anonymous nature and, like background music, has crept into our lives almost without anybody noticing. They include refrigerators, sensors, automatic cameras, servers, mainframe computers and Turing machines. To a certain very rudimentary degree, they are already linked although most only among the same kind. It is a preliminary phase of the Internet of Things. Our day-to-day link with them passes through the smart phones. They, having a computing power beyond the desk computer of the beginnings 1990s, have left the realm of a talking medium far behind and have almost become extensions of the human upper extremities and replacing brain parts. The third component of the assets helping to manage our technical environment, are the “popular machines of science-fiction”, the robots (as discussed in Netopia’s report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical?). Although for the moment the sole focus appears to be on making them individually suitable for everyday use, their full bilateral co-operation with the Internet of Things will be just a matter of time. Once all three components have been seamlessly integrated, the IoT-information will reside everywhere: in databases, objects and also in robots. Intelligence will thus be ubiquitous. Information will be managed and communicated by all of them: objects, computers, robotics, and humans. So, robots will exchange with other machines and logically also amongst themselves. Robots will be the Internet of Things’ legs and arms for taking action in the real world. Thus, digital relationships between humans, things and robots will provide for an additional layer to an already intricate net of complexity. However, this is only one optimistic version of our future. What will happen as indicated part one, when the robots behave like humans and collectively act for example without permissions by real humans?

Embracing the Future

The look into the future is, thus, not uniformly placid. And the visible trends are not to calm us down. Almost unnoticed, the starting signal for the development of reasoning robots has already been given long ago by research on artificial neurons simulating brain activities. US billionaires are pouring billions of US dollars into the work of gaining fundamental insights into the mysteries of the human brain, alongside with President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative (BRAIN). Undoubtedly, this is but an example of what happens elsewhere and will so in the not-too-distant future. Reasoning robots will be the ultimate game changer. So, if humans do not want to share the fate of Phillip K. Dick’s central characters they better become part of shaping this future. Therefore, informing and thus increasing the awareness of the broader public about the many manifestations and impact of advanced robotic engineering is paramount.

What is doable will be done. With scientists in governmental and private institutes anxious to research, industry eager to build, business avid for sales, and users pleased to employ, the race will continue and even accelerate, whether partners or opponents, whether knowingly or most likely even not – individuals might trigger collectively technological developments towards a point of no return that would have been impossible by a single operating agent. Also with advanced robotic engineering, there will be no exception from the rule. Given also that no ban has ever proved not to be ignored or circumvented it is only a question of time that these conquering activities will surface within less benign machines. Not to mention: at the very end, every civilian application will be matched if not surpassed by a military one. Mind here: the BRAIN initiative although led by the US National Science Foundation, receives strong support from the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. Mind also: this is what we know from within a fairly transparent society – not to talk about the many opaque ones.

On top of all of this, general human-inherent issues and risks have to be addressed and to be taken care of. Everywhere, fantasies of omnipotence could easily sprawl and feign an all-encompassing capacity of managing and controlling technological developments and problems as they arise – which is neither true nor any longer plausible. Today’s world is contingent, and any asserted linearity of events just ignores the butterfly effect.

Starting a Full-fledged Debate

This net of complexity needs to be urgently met by a profound debate covering the substantiated prospects of a better life, on the one hand, and the many perilous issues related with advanced robotic engineering on the other – the earlier the better, looking at the frightening speed of the technological progress. Therefore, a number of stakeholders need to take action in parallel and preferably in an expeditious manner. It will be up to politicians to bring together the various stakeholders and the related discussions. Linking them is essential because the situation does not allow for looking any longer at these issues in isolation.

Lawmakers should look into the legal status of robots on a broad scale that needs to cover the technical development in advance. Exemplary questions are: Is there a legal entitlement to have a human caretaker? What about therapeutic robots stroking a patient just a bit too strong, or rescue robots causing the death of a hostage? Do we need to investigate reasoning robots’ negligence or deliberate intention and, with it, also atonement and punishment? May humans use robots as bodyguards? Already here and now, driverless cars demonstrate that the technological developments have outpaced the law. What kinds of technologies need to be forbidden, in particular in the context of privacy intruding supervision and monitoring? Not only here, we should not rely on the computer industry – looking only after its own interests – but do our utmost to ensure that adequate basic rules and laws will be created.

Public debates are considerably influenced by religious movements – not only in states that are at the forefront of robotics, but also in those that are dependent on technological progress elsewhere but with huge financial resources for the research. Creation, dignity of life, death, after-life: these are all topics which religions and their institutional manifestations address. Thus, it is only logical for them to advance questions such as: are there types of machines that should not be produced, grandfather-Lennart-type clones for instance? Is there a limit of what machines shall do to and with real humans, for instance enforcing their company upon humans? Vice-versa: is there a limit of what real humans shall do to and with machines, for instance having sexual intercourse?

The human sciences are well placed to help us thinking, discussing and eventually balancing considerations in areas for which no models exist and which might be beyond our current comprehension. They can help us to tackle questions such as: do we really understand what will happen, when and not if, machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence? Are we prepared to think in other categories than cause and effect? Human sciences might help us to develop the appropriate analytical tools to be capable of grasping the long-term problems of which we might not be even aware.

The media can greatly support the diffusion of robot-related knowledge. Late movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick (1968), Star Wars (1977 by George Lucas), and Terminator (1984 by James Cameron) had a profound impact on the image that we have about robots. So far, most of them depict either nightmarish scenarios of viciously reasoning robots, simply cute little helpers or determined brute force. Although many SF movies have been real blockbusters, they still failed to reach a population that would never spend money on a SF movie ticket. For reaching this goal, the aforementioned Swedish SF Real Humans deserves to be applauded. Diffused in France and Germany via ARTE, a publicly funded TV channel, the series informs a wider population in an instructive and interesting manner and thereby acts as eye-opener.

Literature can do that as well. While zapping through TV channels and stumbling over “Real Humans” is one thing, getting someone to read a SF book is a different matter. And it will be even more difficult to make non-SF readers interested in subjects that are caused by cutting edge technology but heavily impact on social and societal life. Critiques like writer G. Hack argue from a shifted angle. They see SF currently subject to stagnation, as there is a crisis-like repetition of known topoi stemming from the Orwell-arsenal and hacker paranoia. This might prevent the technology-oriented narrative to pass beyond the current status. That is why he calls not just for writing a new code but creating something that exceeds the code concept and opens new horizons. Whether female writers such as Anna North, Genevieve Valentine and Julianna Baggott do that, is up to critiques or the readers to judge. However, it is at least reassuring to see that female writers join the so far male dominated club.

All types of education and training systems should boost and promote an understanding of technology. As the aforementioned Roberta program, they should help to stimulate female pupils in a gender-appropriate manner before gender stereotypes become ingrained. Also, similar to the time when the PCs became really affordable, it might be now the time to think about incorporating basis robot-related knowledge into the curricula.

In conclusion, stakeholders from all walks of lives need to populate the debate on the multi-facetted potentials of advanced robotic engineering. Now!

>> Back to Part 1

Birgit Hütten

Birgit Hütten works in Brussels for an inter-governmental organization. Her fields of interest are those relations and factors whose alleged insignificance for the overall developments needs to be questioned with a special emphasis on East–Asia. She has a Magister Artium (University Bonn) degree in Japanology and Comparative Religion and a Master in European Administrative Management (University of the Applied Sciences Berlin) for which she presented defense related thesis.