Thursday, January 12, 2017

Robots and the future for humanity and beyond

A new report from the EU parliament suggests that we are on the cusp of a new robot-led industrial revolution. It seems that, while we writhe and curse over immigration, robots are coming over here, about to take our jobs. Soon, it is suggested, robots will be more intelligent than people—after which point, anything goes. Automation will destroy our society by putting the vast majority of people out of work, while a tiny elite enjoy all the blessings wealth can bestow, protected by a security army of, you got it, robots.

So the MEPs have been discussing robots and the fears of economic apocalypse, but also our likely Terminator-esque future, in which Nazi robots take over and ubermensch the shit out us. To counter this, the MEPs made recommendations taking inspiration from Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which he devised for his 1942 short story Runaround.

These rules state:
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 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

In addition, robots would have to be installed with a 'kill switch', for when Skynet gets too big for its boots.

However, these rules seem to me to be fairly pointless, beyond furnishing an illusionary sense of security as we plunge headlong into the new industrial revolution. After all, once the robots are in charge, it's hard to see what would stop them changing the rules as they see fit. If they are indeed more intelligent than us, they might know better than us. In any case, we wouldn't be able to win the argument intellectually, let alone force them to do what we wanted. It's hard to believe that any security we had installed couldn't be bypassed by a greater intelligence. As we're seeing in the US, all the safeguards you might install are only as safe as the people you entrust to keep them. Once the robots are in the presidency, the Senate and the House, so to speak, they can change the constitution to whatever suits them.

So, it appears that robots could soon relegate man back down to less than top dog. Finally we will be subservient to another—and our vanquishers will be of our own devising. And while the possibilities for apocalyptic outcome just trip off the tongue, there are, if not good reasons to be optimistic, then at least ways of thinking about it that don't require smoking ruins and robots zapping the last few John Connors.

Because we're going here, no two ways about that. For all our science fiction fears, and realistic worries about automation, we aren't going to stop. This is humanity—we could no more not go down this road than we could have not built a nuclear bomb, or climbed Everest. So, we should be welcoming the rise of robots—if only because we have to—and finding good things about it.

For example: the rise of Trump has brought a constant shriek of "where are the adults?" Perhaps robots are going to be the adults that prevent Trump from destroying the world in a social-media related fit of pique. Perhaps robots are going to be the ones that save democracy, by defending it from its worst excesses. If we cannot be trusted to elect decent leaders, or to be decent leaders, perhaps robots, with their hyperintelligence, will have to do it.

Perhaps robots can help us not destroy the planet, or at the very least get those climate change deniers to shut the fuck up on Facebook for five minutes. Perhaps robots can solve the philosophical problems we have been unable to—the 'hard problem' of consciousness, for example, or that of free will and determinism, and thereby usher in a new Athenian idyll.

Talking of the Greeks, it's just possible that our fear of robots is analogous to the fears the Mount Olympus gods once had of us. Perhaps we are destined to be the new gods, and the robots our progeny. And hopefully they would respect—even worship—us, for a while anyway, before casting us aside as we did to ours.

And looking further forwards: perhaps robots are, in the end, the way that we will ensure the survival of life. Because if life has a purpose—or at least, if humanity's grasping towards knowledge has a purpose—it is, presumably, to get off this spinning space rock before we blow it up, an asteroid smacks it or the sun consumes it. We know the chances of humans surviving deep space travel are extremely low, and the Star Trek world of humans living in deep space is even more unlikely. Robots, however, built by us to reproduce and adapt on a survival-of-the-fitness regime, could plausibly go out and thrive in the great yonder. OK, it wouldn't be organic life, but we can probably, um, live with that. Perhaps our robots would be so clever, they could make themselves organic. But it would ensure the continuation of a working intelligence, even a consciousness, one blessed, at the outset at least, by humanity.