Robots will (or will not) kill us all

21 Apr

Skimming through articles over the weekend, I came across

Huh. When the Internet can’t agree whether I should be irrationally afraid of some future possibility, what am I supposed to do?

The first two articles are based largely on the paper Autonomous technology and the greater good by Steve Omohundro, published in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence (link goes to the paper; access is free). To grossly oversimplify, Omohundro points to the coming ubiquitous nature of autonomous devices, their reach, and their coldly rational and self-protective natures. The third article, from io9, suggests that the lack of human bias errors and emotion would prevent a digital super-intelligence from being actively evil.

Predictive algorithms can have unintended effects, and since we have a tendency to anthropomorphize actions that seem to be conscious decisions, we might be inclined to see them as good or evil. They’re not.  One example: during some bone-chilling days near the end of our exhausting winter this year, I treated myself to a couple extra degrees of warmth in my home: 68F instead of 66 on the floor where I was working. I was surprised to feel the furnace running in the following week when there was a break in the cold. I pulled out my smartphone and checked the setting on the Nest programmable thermostat.  Nest had decided that since I tweaked the temperature above the set schedule, I must want it warmer every day. It was neither concerned about my cold nose nor trying to boost my energy bill: it had simply extrapolated a pattern from a repeated aberrant behavior.

Anyone who has taken a basic philosophy survey course knows that passionate arguments can be made for and against pure utilitarianism. Consider Phillipa Foot’s Trolley Problem. In a class a couple years ago, after the usual kvetching about the scenario being implausible, there was universal agreement about what to do in part one of the problem:

Sorry guy, but when it was a matter of flipping a switch to choose between the accidental death of four people or the accidental death of one, everyone eventually agreed to flip the switch.  However, the second part of the problem produced mixed results.

Though I argued that flipping the switch in part one was actively killing the isolated guy as much as pushing him off the bridge, the other people in the room were far queasier about pushing a man instead of a switch.  That made them feel like killers, rather than the first scenario, where passivity would be complicit in the deaths of three additional people.  What would a robot do?  If it’s simply a question of one versus four, the level of active participation in the death of the one shouldn’t matter. That’s what sends science fiction writers (and drone-controlling military strategists) into the dark zone of assassinations to prevent possible future crimes, using a utilitarian calculation that one death now will prevent many later.  Maybe. Oh, and don’t think that we’ll be saved by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, specifically a version that prevents harming humans. We won’t.

Anthropologically, I think that human beings, cultures, and societies are complex organizations that thrive because of our illogical choices as much as our rational ones. We are not at peak efficiency or justice, but the continual balancing of logic, passion, empathy, innate drives, etc is what makes us who we are. So for me, the threat of widespread AI is not really a question of life and death of our species, but of our selves. As much as I adore robotics, we need to be careful that we do not cede our humanity to them.  For now, we’re lucky that there’s a sure-fire way to recognize an evil robot: look for the goatee.


1 Comment

Posted by on April 21, 2014 in Our Robot Overlords


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One response to “Robots will (or will not) kill us all

  1. Rusty Wilson

    June 21, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Robots are the real threat to human evolution. They threaten a future with the elite living lives of endless pleasure thanks to robot factories and protection by 100% loyal intelligent drones and robot armies. Most people will be kept in poverty or eliminated in genocides decided by the elites or robots that completely take over and only keep some humans, with their limited attention spans and intelligence, as experiments or pets. Many theorists believe that advanced civilizations progress beyond the limited organic into the inorganic and ultimatly evolve into pure formless intelligent energy.

    Coming back to the near future past the utilitarian peak, a dark and scary place coming sooner than you think. As we can’t even give 47% enough to eat what hope do we have of giving away so much more?

    The scenarios:

    1. Feudalism, the most likely under capitalism: the elite owns the robot factories and also ‘own’ the people they supply with the robot-produced ‘stuff’. “Those who can not justify their existence to the 1% elite will starve or be executed. Such a society is likely to resemble poverty-stricken parts of modern America, with 100% loyal robots serving as the police and army….

    1.A The elite live lives of endless pleasure in gated enclaves (or floating cities) protected by AI drones and robotic armies, while leaving anyone who can not buy a spot to their fate… surviving by their own devices but not allowed to progress to a better state.
    1.B Genocide: Robots take over or the elites choose to exterminate the supplicant masses. Some may be kept alive as experiments and pets, but the vast majority will die by drone, starvation or plague.

    2. Communist utopia, the only optimistic scenario: everyone gets an equal share of goods produced by an effectively infinite source – the robot factories. Perhaps with voting for government and laws, or an artificial intelligence overlord.


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