Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With

There's been a lot in the news recently about public tests of driverless cars - and indeed during the summer there will be a series of small busses in London that will run interested tourists from point a to point b: albiet with a human ready to leap into the controls if something should go wrong.

It's also a fact that planes haven't really needed pilots for 30 years now and warfare is moving towards smaller and smaller planes controlled remotely - and surely passenger planes won't be far behind.

This leads on, albiet tangentally, from news this week that a successor to Deep Blue has beaten a human in a game of Go! - which I have never played but am led to believe has more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

And I'm not sure if my cynicism is down to my age or to a genuine concern - for as the late, great Douglas Adams wrote: anything invented before you are born is in the natural order of things, anything invented between birth and around 35 years old is a new and exciting gadget: anything much after that is Against God And Must Be Stopped - but I do worry.

This all started from a comment I heard online recently that made me totally re-think one of my all-time favourite films.

Because when you come right down to it: R2-D2 and C-3PO are slaves

Yep - you read that right: and they're not the only ones in the Star Wars universe either - Anakin's mother is a slave, Leia is sold into slavery...

But the big difference is that everyone goes about acting like it's ok that the two robots have personalities, clearly react with emotions, are treated like friends - and yet are subject to have their memories wiped without a second thought and to be bought and sold at the drop of a hat.

OK, I hear you cry - but they are merely "programmed" to behave like they have personalities: they're really just clever robots right - it's not like anyone can actually prove they have consciousness...

Ah but can YOU really prove that YOU have consciousness?  I mean, really prove it?

Often quoted in Science Fiction are Asimov's three rules:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, cause a human to come to harm
2) A robot must obey a human order at all times, unless the order conflicts with the first rule
3) A robot must protect its existence unless doing so conflicts with the first two rules

And right there you have a recipe for slavery because these rules mean that in certain situations a robot has no free will.

This may sound far-fetched and fanciful, but there are many serious scientists that are worried about a Terminator style rise of the robots, including Stephen Hawking who has gone on record to say that the computer that provides his voice is now so clever that it is at the point where it can speak INSTEAD of him instead of FOR him.  There are programs out there that can carry your twitter feed on for you after you are dead by studying your previous posts and pretty soon a whole load of jobs are going to be no longer required as robots get ever more complicated.

Of course this has already happened to a small extent - with robots replacing workers on the shop floor in many factories - but now computers are being programmed to predict stock market trends, to create works of art or write plays (admittedly not very good ones yet...)

Look how far we have come in our own lifetimes - in 1960 James T Kirk being handed a small computer pad to sign a work order was thought of as science fiction, now everyone has one in their pocket.

So the big question is - say we make a robot that is so intelligent it is indistinguishable from, or  actually has, consciousness?  No doubt the scientists and programmers around the world who have been working towards that very thing will slap themselves on the back and tell each other how clever they are...

But at that very moment - the first moment that one of those robots is used or sold we may be guilty of creating a new slave race.  Should we, even now, be asking ourselves what rights these robots will have, how they should be treated, whether they can vote, marry, earn a wage with which to buy lubricants for their hinges?

Let's face it - in unpteen thousand years of evolution and what we laughingly call society we have never even managed to get human rights correct, let alone android ones

And meanwhile have pity for R2-D2 and C-3PO cast to the side of future Star Wars plots and ask yourself whether they have been treated entirely fairly