Artificial Intelligence and the Laws of Robotics

Robots are seen at the Tanscorp stand at the Cebit technology fair in Hannover on March 20, 2017. The Digital Business fair CEBIT in Hanover with Japan as partner country runs from March 20 until March 24. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN

In a recent discussion I was struck by how much, regardless of the differences in the source of our information, many of us across the generations are concerned about the not-enough-discussed rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the implications for all facets of human existence.

As a child of the 1970’s, I grew up reading about the implications (economic, socio-cultural, philosophical, moral and everything else in between) of highly developed robots with highly evolved artificial intelligence in the Science fiction genre.  I read Isaac Asimov, whose robots were governed by the ‘Laws of Robotics’ that protected mankind from any impulse that AI might have to hurt humans.  My imaginings of the scenarios for human robot interactions drew on these laws and, dare I say, found comfort in the protection they might provide.

The discussant on the other side of the table was at least two generations younger and drew his imaginings from movies that have dealt with scenarios in which highly evolved AI came into conflict with, or found new ways to evolve in co-existence with, humans.  So the scenarios of ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Terminator’ movies were what raised his hackles and his exploration of the potential scenarios for humans in a world populated by highly developed, and probably smarter than humans, robots.

Never mind the different sources of our musing on the possibilities, both of us agreed on the need for the exploration of  the implications for the future of mankind of the rapid developments taking place in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Our interesting discussion had flowed naturally from a conversation of what the world’s economic structures would look like in a few years.  We had begun discussing whether the displaced and dispossessed Trump voters in the middle sections of the United States had any hope of getting their jobs back under his Presidency and we concluded probably not.  Their jobs have not been taken by migrants or Clean Air regulations or even by outsourcing to other countries to take advantage of cheap labour.  Rather, they have been taken by machines on factory floors, each machine doing the work of dozens of humans, if not hundreds.

Machines have been changing humanity’s lives for centuries and have had profound impacts on the world of work.  We can argue the impact of mechanisation has been mostly positive but the development of machines has had huge consequences for humanity and how we humans work and how we live our lives.

And now come robots filled with Artificial Intelligence.  And we are into a whole new ball game.   20/twenty cricket anyone?

Robots are not just machines, mechanically moving things around.  They are machines with sensors that they use to detect when something has changed in their environment and can respond and take appropriate action.  Robots are programmed to assess situations and act in an autonomous fashion – some can even fix themselves.

Robots and intelligent machines (the line is very blurry) are ‘working’ in hospitals and laboratories, are flying across the world to deliver ‘targeted’ bombs and packages and medicines, conducting surveillance of places unreachable by humans and making decisions that profoundly impact humanity, resulting in death for some.  They are calculating formulas, and delivering lectures remotely and even carrying out operations (albeit still for the most part guided by humans).  And they are beating the best brains we humans can send forward at Chess and just about every other mind game we can conceive.

And robots are here in Jamaica and we haven’t had even a scintilla of public debate that I have seen about the implications for our future.

The world is rapidly arriving at a point where robots will be able to do every physical task we humans can and do it faster, smarter and more accurately than we do.  Soon ‘smart’ homes will not need humans to clean and maintain them or stock them, to turn on and off the lights.  And in short order robots may be able to think faster and more logically than humans (welcome Commander Data from Star Trek), and ‘intelligently’ analyze and address problems and devise wonderful solutions without human input.

In the Jamaican context, I am told that there are robots working at the Appleton factory – doing what I am not sure, but one could imagine they could be programmed to sense subtle differences in the chemical composition of any batch of rum and compensate to ensure that every bottle of the finished product put out by the factory is of the exact same quality and taste.

And here is where we start to get into some questions about what it means to be human or robot and what we humans bring to the table beyond our programmable intelligence.   For after all, what is a brain but a computing machine, programmable and capable of gathering data from our sensors, learning from our experiences and making decisions.  Surely, we are more than biological (as opposed to mechanical) machines

Years ago in Trinidad where I worked there was an excellent surgeon, legendary in Port of Spain hospital, whose decisions as to when to do surgery and what operation to do often appeared absent of any scientific logic but, equally often, turned out to be correct and the best decision to be made.  When asked ‘why’ he was making any particular decision his response invariably was ‘The moon is (or is not) right’.  What was he sensing, feeling, knowing from experience that didn’t appear to be measurable or logical?

Jamaica’s master blender, our own wonderful Joy Spence, uses her skills learnt in Chemistry to blend Appleton Rum and she brings her senses, her sense of smell, her taste buds but she also brings that indefinable quality of artistry and creativity, hard to define and programme.  Surely she will always be needed to mix and match batches of rum to create a new blend?

Surely, the nose, the touch, the intuition, the feelings of us humans (more highly developed in some than in others) will always be needed.  Can robots develop the skill to be rum blenders, not just rum mixers?  Can AI be taught to have a ‘nose’, to sense when the moon is right?

We need to begin grappling with these and the many other questions raised by the rapid advances in AI that are occurring.

If robots can become stronger smarter and more capable than humans, if AI can replicate human intuition and knowledge in robots, what would a human being exist to do?  What would be our work, our worth?  And, to draw on the chilling scenarios raised by of the Matrix, the Terminator movies and those that needed Asimov’s  ‘Laws of Robotics’, why would robots keep us around?

Why should these exponentially evolving, self-repairing and smarter-than-humans machines not just take over the world?

We need to be talking and thinking about these questions.  Perhaps we should try to bring in the Laws of Robotics before it is too late.  ‘The Matrix’ anyone?

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