Asimov’s laws are the foundation of the “Handbook of Robotics”, which pose a set of checks when designing intelligent robots.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
It may seem quite unnecessary to even consider these checks in real life; the computers and robots we produce are mindless drudges that can only really achieve one thing. Research into Artificial Intelligence however may eventually force us to consider these laws as a genuine step in the production process.
AI has been a captivating topic and the focus of many Sci-Fi films (and indeed books like Asimov’s I,Robot) which readily fuel fears of robot armageddon. They were, however, all mostly shrugged of for what they were branded as, fiction.
Considering artificially intelligent machines as a legitimate direction for our technology was mostly considered an academic exercise; until a few years ago. Big players in the field of computer technology have voiced their genuine concern over the development of AI computers. Moore’s law is proving itself now in a more powerful way than ever, “Computer power doubles every 18 months, bandwidth triples and electronic storage capacity quadruples every year.” The machines that are being built by some robotic firms are truly of a different class than what we have been able to produce in the past.
Google’s dive into the vast sea that is robotics, then should not come as a surprise. It is a company like no other, led by the ambitious and visionary Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and it can’t seem to stop buying companies. In the space of two months it bought 12 companies, 8 of which had the word ‘robotics’ in their name.
The two most prominent of their ever growing list are Boston Dynamics – which builds “bipedal, humanoid robots” like ‘Atlas’ and four-legged mech-creatures like their impossibly fast Cheetah. And DeepMind Technologies – the company that is more interested in building robotic brains than ‘mechanical muscle’.
It comes with a team of 75 researchers and computer scientists, who have published papers in journals that include Nature on topics like machines undertaking reinforcement learning to excel at solving “a diverse array of challenging tasks”.
Perhaps Google may eventually try to combine the efforts of those two companies, into building intelligent humanoid robots that will become the frontline of its robot army. But conspiracy theories are not really what I want to talk about.
Why is Google doing this? I could not say for sure, but I could venture a guess: They are acutely aware of the progress of technology and have updated their understanding of what it can achieve, putting aside the prideful view – that some things can only be achieved by humans – and as any forward thinking firm just wants to branch out and stay ahead. Google is not the only figure that is invested in AI, literally or figuratively. You may have seen the open letter signed by 1000+ experts including Tesla’s Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, warning against the development of autonomous AI weaponry. They are distinctly aware of the capabilities of AI technology and how destructive it can be if used for an asinine use like war.
Just in the past few days, Jun Wang – the pioneer of Genomics and one of China’s most famous scientists – stepped down from a position at the Beijing Genome Institute to pursue research into AI. In an interview found in Nature he said “Basically, I am just trying to feed an AI system with masses of data. Then that system could learn to understand human health and human life better than we do. The AI will try to draw a formula for life.”
It’s not just all hype is it?
Understandable reaction, lots of things were promised in the ‘future’, I mean we are still waiting on the hover boards.
But these figures are “hardly luddites” Thus the short answer is, no.
AI might have the potential to alter life for people on this planet, on a scale even larger than the industrial revolution, in a truly unprecedented way. What is difference?
During the industrial revolution, ‘mechanical muscle’ replaced human labor and allowed more people to specialise/upskill and move into white collar work. Surely this is just a continuation of improving technology that improves economies and in turn peoples lives. The industrial revolution was named as such because the understanding and technology we had was being applied and it overthrew the existing mode of production. But the technology that sparked that, is now evolving.
IBM’s Watson is a computing system that answers questions. Simple enough. But it has shown it can do so faster and better than humans. IBM built the machine by applying; natural language processing; information retrieval; automated reasoning etc. It performed better than human players on the quiz show ‘Jeopardy!’, but that is really only the cusp of its abilities.
It is a general purpose machine, and general purpose is a big deal. It can diversify, similar to how modern computers have diversified from its original clunky rooms sized ancestors. It is basically a think-tank that provides solutions to problems posed to it, and it has the advantage of information retrieval that does not suffer from brain-farts. It is no surprise it is helping UM decisions in treatments for lung cancer at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering cancer centre.
It is an example of a ‘mechanical mind’, it will begin to do what humans have prided themselves for generations; think.
Watch this short 15 minute documentary titled ‘Humans need not apply’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU
It is a really well-made and thought provoking video. He shows that AI will allow robots and computers to emulate and learn every single strata of human ability and endeavour. Technological change is not always the introductions of a new, fancy and shiny toy. The real change – what is happening now- is the stuff from the last decade becoming cheaper and easier to make.
This allows mechanised brains to out-perform humans in several jobs which require basic brain labor. His horse analogy might seem like a doomsday prophecy, but it does not have to be. Humans aren’t going to be made obsolete, and there isn’t going to be a sudden mass exodus as firms start buying robots. Just yet anyway.
As The Economist says, even when there are broad gains for society, many individuals will lose out from AI. The original “computers” were drudges, assistants, who performed endless calculations for their higher-ups. Transistors replaced them; AI will do the same for hordes of white-coller workers.
Technology progresses at a rate biology can’t dream of matching, and when one consider just how much machines can achieve; the world shown in Wall-E seems ever more likely. But we have time to prepare.
Our reluctance to accept or underestimate the reach of AI, I think, speaks volumes about human hubris; we glorify what humans can do. As we teach these robots to act as we do and think as we do, we create a population in our own image. As we killed our notions of God (thank you Nietzsche). Perhaps these robots may do the same, eventually, not literally but metaphorically. Unless we are prepared.
And it is necessary to address questions that arise now, so that we may be ready. Ready for the growing impact this rising tide of technology will have on the life we live.
Artificial Intelligence will not be a wholly terrible progression and intention of this post (and several other articles I read) is not to suggest AI will spell the end of the human race or reduce us down to the, dumb unambitious but cared for, Eloi.
We just need to understand that automation is inevitable, perhaps not sooner but definitely later.
We need to ask address these ethical, moral, economical issues now, so we can prepare for the outcome and definite impact – on the economy/job-market and other areas – AI robots will have.
Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics have never been more appropriate.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU (the terms mechanical muscle and mechanical minds)
Featured image is Cortana form Halo : http://www.kitguru.net/laptops/mobile/matthew-wilson/microsoft-officially-announces-its-answer-to-siri-cortana/
Atlas robot image : http://www.technologyreview.com/news/517136/meet-atlas-the-robot-designed-to-save-the-day/