Towards Robot Citizens

600x400-honda_ridgeline_rechvac-8aa2f89dfacbce335f273c86e39be724The robots in Robot Wars get better and better in each new series. We are seeing survival of the fittest in action. The best designs are copied and survive to do battle in future series. The bad designs die out. It is the law of the robotic jungle. Not only are the weapons getting more powerful, the armour is getting stronger to resist the new weapons. The electronic circuits inside the robots are getting more sophisticated to enable better control and more robust to resist the greater impacts. We are witnessing an arms race. Robot builders learn fast. They have to in order to survive. It’s just like Mother Nature, red in tooth and claw. So is this trend going to see our roboteers producing Terminators that get out of control? Or will the engineers of the future build friendly robots that operate as security guards, bodyguards, servants or even companions? Is it really likely that we are heading towards the sort of world we see in the films such as The Terminator, Bicentennial Man or AI? Is this progress taking us towards a nightmare world?

Technological progress has, with few exceptions, produced generations of machines that were better, faster, more powerful, more reliable, cheaper and safer than their earlier generations. People will not buy machines that are a danger to them; they will return robots that are dangerous or unpredictable to some future Dixon’s or Robots R Us. Commercial robot building companies could not last for long if they killed their customers. Besides, just think of the paperwork required for each customer’s death.

All technology is subject to the survival of the fittest just like nature. But unlike nature technology does not progress by random mutations that survive trial by combat. Technology progresses by intelligent design selected by intelligent individuals according to how useful the technology is. And this process is millions of times faster than random mutation. The dinosaurs had big muscles but small brains; now they are extinct. Well most of them anyway. The dinosaurs couldn’t adapt to their rapidly changing environment quickly enough. With our better brains and technology we will be able to survive in harmony with our robotic creations. If robots do become intelligent there will surely be campaigns to give them rights just as we give animals rights. If robots become as intelligent as us we may even give them the vote and make them citizens. But in both cases it will be us who decide; we will be in the driving seat.

It is often said that we will always be able to switch the robots off when we want to. Not necessarily. Robots may well become so useful that we would depend on them for our lifestyle. Then we would not, even could not, switch them off. Not because they would threaten us if we tried. We are seeing this trend in dependency already. Take the banks as an example. They are just giant computers keeping records of payments in and payments out. If a bank’s computers were to fail to keep accurate records for even a few days the banks would lose so many customers that they would go out of business. To avoid this, the banks use elaborate security systems to ensure that the majority of their central computers are never turned off. The picture is similar for the telephone network. Computers replaced the human operators years ago. If the computers in the telephone exchanges were turned off we would have no telephone systems, landline, satellite or mobile. The only people the banks and telephone companies employ are the people required to keep the computers happy. These people keep the computers fed with electricity, busy with calls, comfortable with air conditioning and safe with security guards.

We could not switch off the Internet computers because we are increasingly dependent on the web. Worse still our food and water distribution systems depend on computers. Millions of people would die within days if those systems were turned off. This however does not mean that robots will be our masters it means that we will come to be totally dependent on our robot slaves.

Will we have to become cyborgs to stay in the evolutionary race? Biological evolution has no chance of keeping up with technological design. Evolution takes millions of years before much change is visible. And evolution doesn’t always go in the direction we want it to. We could enhance ourselves further by design and technology. We are already doing so with artificial hearts, pacemakers, joints, limbs, ear implants, bones, and so on. Many people would like to improve their memories, intelligence or personalities, just as many people want to improve their appearance through dental work and cosmetic surgery today. But if we tried artificial brains that would change who we are in a totally different way to having an artificial hip joint fitted.

One thing is certain robotic technology will play an increasingly important role in all our futures. But our robots certainly won’t want to treat us like we treat cows, pigs and chickens. Their equivalent of a burger and fries is a charge from the mains. Perhaps one day our robots will be powered by nuclear fission and their brains will be upgraded with new microprocessors. They won’t want to eat meat, but they might like some fission chips.