Forget robot rights, experts say, use them for public safety
James Randerson, The Guardian, Tuesday April 24, 2007
Scientists have criticised a government report which advocated a debate on granting rights to super-intelligent robots in the future as “a distraction”. They say the public should instead be consulted over the use of robots by the military and police, as carers for the elderly and as sex toys.
The robotics experts were commenting on a report published by the Office of Science and Innovation’s Horizon Scanning Centre in December. The authors of Robo-rights: Utopian dream or rise of the machines? wrote: “If artificial intelligence is achieved and widely deployed (or if they can reproduce and improve themselves) calls may be made for human rights to be extended to robots.”
The idea of robots becoming so smart that they acquire a conscious sense of self has fascinated science fiction writers for generations. The recent films I, Robot and Bicentennial Man, both based on books by Isaac Asimov, dealt with the question of whether intelligent robots should enjoy human rights. In the first a policeman played by Will Smith tracks a robot called Sonny that has apparently gone against its programming to commit murder. In the second Andrew the robot embarks on the quest for equal rights.But the scientists said true robot intelligence is so far in the future that it should not be treated as anything more than science fiction. “It’s really premature I think to discuss robot rights,” said Owen Holland, a computer scientist and expert on machine consciousness at Essex University. “[This report] is certainly not based on science and it is not realistic.”
Noel Sharkey, a roboticist at the University of Sheffield who is a regular contributor to the BBC’s Robot Wars, agreed, but he said there were more immediate concerns. “The idea of machine consciousness and rights is … a bit of a fairy tale as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “My concern is about public safety. I think we need proper, informed, public debate about where we are going with robotics at the moment. We need to tell the public about what’s going on in robotics and ask them what they want.”
Last year the South Korean military unveiled a robot border guard built by Samsung that can shoot targets up to 500 metres away. He said these could be programmed with a shoot-to-kill policy. The US, meanwhile, is on the way to achieving its goal of replacing one third of its ground vehicles with autonomous robots.
“It would be great if all the military were robots and they could fight each other, but that’s not going to be the case,” he said. “My biggest concern there is that it goes against the body bag politics. If you don’t have body bags coming home, you can start a war much more easily.”
Once robots become more common in warfare, he predicted they would be used more widely in policing and surveillance; so far there has been very little serious and informed public debate on these issues.
Offenders could, he suggested, be monitored at home by a guard robot and the streets could be patrolled by mobile robot CCTV. They could also be used to deal with riots and other civil disturbances, he predicted. “Imagine the miners’ strike with robots armed with water cannon.”
By providing companionship and basic care and health monitoring for older people, robo-carers could look after the increasing numbers of elderly people. And he predicted that vibrating sex-robots would be available soon for those bored with blow-up dolls.