Science fiction stories regularly delve into the realm of robots or computers running humans and their societies and it’s an interesting concept.
AI and having an army of robotic helpers to assist mankind in its dangerous or unwanted tasks tends to polarise thinking into 2 groups, first the idyllic concept of man being able to turn their hand to living a full life while the robots do all the work and the second – where the robots take over and either enslave or destroy mankind.
This brings the AI topic into the ethics firing line, firstly should we have robots running around doing our dirty work and second, how ethics will apply to the machines themselves. To help with this back in 1948 Issac Asimov came up with the three rules of robotics included in his short story I Robot:
First Law A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Even though these laws were thought up over 70 years ago they play a key part in modern robotics and also some interesting problems. The first thing to say about these laws though is that these laws are not like the laws of physics which can’t be broken – they have to be applied or programmed in to the machine so really the term ‘laws’ is not strictly accurate.
The problems that these laws create is centered mainly around law 2 – a human gives a robot an instruction that contradicts law 1. The effects of this was seen in 2001 A Space Odyssey when HAL was given orders that conflicted with higher functions to not lie and also in The Forbidden Planet when the Robot Robbie was asked to kill the evil monster. In both these cases things didn’t end well for humans and robots. That’s science fiction but what about real life?
Robotic surgery is becoming more and more available these days – at the moment the machines are human controlled which in itself is a grey area of robotics but let’s remember this is where AI will be applied. Let’s think forward to the possibility of an AI controlling the robot – how does the AI differentiate between harm and surgery?
The other problem is to do with driver less cars, if the car being controlled follows these laws then in theory if a human steps out in front of it then it will stop and if physics permits will not harm the human. But what about if someone steps out to harm the human passenger? If the human was in control it would takes steps to enhance it’s survival and drive on, round or even over them but a robot can’t or shouldn’t do that.
So while these laws sound great in theory, it does assume that people are nice to each other. Which we know they are not.
As for the ethics of whether we should allow more robots to be created to do our dirty work, rightly or wrongly it’s happening and has been for some time, the world that we know today would not be what it is without robots. Most of these are not intelligent and rather automatic helpers. Robots with true AI are still very rare but their complexity and capability is growing…
As long as Asimov’s laws are applied we should be safe and shouldn’t have to protect ourselves from rogue HAL’s running around or Skynet trying to destroy us. It’s safe to say though that we mess up though, we of course are only human!
© Simon Farnell 2013 – 2022
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