29 September 2011

Robot dreams

They're not yet world-class athletes, but robots have already begun to infiltrate certain aspects of society - and with their rise come real ethical questions.

Credit: JPL/NASA

When I was about 8-years-old I wanted nothing more than to be a professional baseball player. It was a dream that hadn’t yet been muddied by the harsh adolescent realisation that my talents weren’t quite world-class. One of the first shadows cast on that dream, I remember, was a comment made my brother on a lazy summer afternoon in northern Ontario. We were staying at a rental cottage with our parents, playing cards at the kitchen table, when he looked up from his hand and told me that in 10 years time, baseball would be a game conquered by robots.

Needless to say, his prediction, which was undoubtedly aimed at sparking a fiery rage, has not yet materialised. But nearly two decades on, my brother’s words have never left me. They resurfaced earlier this year when I was invited to watch a robot soccer match between the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology Sydney.

Both universities sent teams to Istanbul this past July to compete in Robocup – an international robotics competition with the stated aim of outperforming the world’s best (human) footballers by 2050.

What I witnessed was far from graceful. The little humanoid robots – called NAOs – couldn’t track the ball. Taking tiny robotic steps, they turned in circles, kicking the air, running into one another and sometimes falling over, dislodging their battery packs, rendering them disabled, until resurrected by the helping hand of human intervention.

Despite the dismal display, I was nevertheless mesmerised. These robots were doing it all on their own – they were autonomous. And as one robotics researcher explained to me, because they all operate online together, they can simultaneously see through their own field-of-view and also through the video-camera-recording-eyes of their teammates. “They will have capabilities that we don’t have, so they will certainly have the potential, if you consider intelligence on a spectrum, to be way above us,” she told me.

And as we move toward personal robots that could walk your dog or cook your breakfast, it could open up a plethora of interesting ethical dilemmas. Without basic psychological abilities like a theory of mind – which allows humans to understand what other people are thinking – a conscience or a pain threshold, she suggested these robots would be akin to sociopaths, lacking depth of feeling and possessing immense strength. Not exactly the type of being you’d entrust to take little Spot to the park or scramble your eggs.

For some segments of society the ethical dilemmas have already begun. While robots haven’t yet infiltrated the ranks of professional sports, they’ve definitely become an integral part of modern military strategy. Nowhere is this more apparent than the United States, whose military now boasts more than 7,000 unmanned aerial systems and 12,000 unmanned ground systems in its inventory. These are deployed in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and more recently, Libya. The U.S. air force has also begun training more personnel who can operate these systems remotely than actual pilots.

A recent commentary in the journal Nature by military robot expert P.W. Singer (author of Wired For War) details the ethical dilemmas inherent in deploying these ‘killer apps’ when politicians don’t fully understand their deadly capabilities – which are only becoming more sophisticated, and thus, more deadly. It’s an interesting and somewhat scary read.

Despite it all, I suppose I can still take solace in the fact that they’re not yet playing baseball – not professionally anyway. But then again, those childhood dreams have long since faded, swept away with the swirling sands of reality – that I’m not so great at baseball.

Until next time


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