Wednesday, December 03, 2008

R2-D2: The Revenge

Last week, I glanced at a sub-headline on the New York Times site that made me laugh out loud. It was this:
Fighting robots may have benefits, but moral issues linger.
Yes, those pesky moral issues. If it weren't for them, we'd all have our own private fighting robots already! I also love how casually we can now refer to things that would have made someone's head explode a hundred years ago. Put it this way: I laughed at the text, but I didn't even think about reading the article. The article about fighting robots.

Well, yesterday I saw that Will Saletan had addressed the piece on his Slate blog, so I read both. The gist of the Times report is that a guy named Ronald Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech -- and I'd say the current holder of the top spot on the list Nerds You Shouldn't Bully -- is "designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the Army."

The case for such robots is, in part, that "they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built without anger or recklessness..."

Part of Saletan's not-entirely-negative response, which is worth reading in full:
But then comes the hitch: What happens when the grainy realities of war defy the simplicity of the robot's program? What happens when the hard part isn't restraining yourself from firing on civilians, but distinguishing them from enemy forces in the first place? That's where Arkin's dream bogs down. He admits it would be hard for robots to recognize physical changes that entail moral changes, such as an enemy fighter with a wound or a white flag. And that's basic stuff compared to the multiplying subtleties of modern counterinsurgency.
I fear we're putting the cart before the robot here, but that's never stopped the world from spinning before. As the Times article puts it, "the technology to make lethal autonomous robots is inexpensive and proliferating." In short, once we've secured all the world's loose nukes, we'll turn around just in time to see our major cities invaded by unstoppable, terrorist-trained robots. This is more proof for my theory, which is still in rough form and still has an unwieldy title: The World Is Going to Get More and More Dangerous and Crazier and Crazier and There's Not a Damn Thing We Can Do About It.

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