Roy and the Robots

2011 June 1

By Wesley M. Brown

Our cat-herder-in-chief has always been something of a blowhard. Well-intentioned to be sure, but he has always had the habit of adjusting facts and figures to support his arguments. Not to the extent of making up facts from thin air, but at least a 20%-30% fudge factor either way.

And, for the most part, we accepted this margin of error as we had insufficient energy or passion to actually look up the statistic and throw it in his face. For all of his BS, we took him at his word.

Additionally, he became the walking encyclopedia of trivia and other arcane minutiae. If you wanted to know who were the signatories of the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529, you asked Roy, mostly because he’d at least give you what seemed to be a reasonable answer, even if he was wrong.

But, there has been a major technological shift since Roy got an iphone. For the first few weeks, when we would disagree over a given fact, we told him to consult the phone for a precise answer. But then, when it became clear that the phone knew everything with a very small chance of error, we simply asked the phone before even bothering to ask Roy. In effect, technology has now rendered Roy obsolete on this point.

I draw a somewhat horrifying conclusion from this by analogy. If Roy has been rendered obsolete by an iphone, how long before robots are able to do the same thing with the human race?

Think it’s not possible?

From 1989 to 2003, chess champion Gary Kasparov played a series of matches against computers. Each generation of computer was better than the last, and could remember millions of chess permutations and draw conclusions from that information. His last two matches in 2003 against 2 different computers ended in draws.

In 2011, the game show Jeopardy! invited IBM’s computer Watson to play against two champions. The computer essentially wiped the floor with the two champions. Despite that the computers hard drives were the size of 8 refrigerators, Watson had basically mastered the English language.

We can all laugh about how cute these computers are while trying to do human things. And, eventually, we will dress them up like our dogs. But, what is to say that computers will not become sentient?

Sci-Fi writers Issac Asimov and John Campbell created the 3 laws of robotics as follows:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

This quaint bit of fiction allowed mankind to breathe a collective sigh of relief, so long as no one actually created a robot that did not obey these rules.

But the rules are only fiction. Sooner of later there will be a mad scientist of sorts who loves robots so much that he will create them with a sense of self-preservation to go along with artificial intelligence. “Terminator 2-Judgment Day” here we come.

The human brain is an organic computer of sorts. But, what essentially separates us from other creatures is the ability to make judgments based upon factors others than instinct. We are able to affirmatively countermand our instincts if need be.

I see no reason why someone cannot do the same with robots. In fact, the only problem I see is the potential inability to have instincts at all.

But, that is a minor issue here. Robots could easily be programmed to ignore Asimov’s fiction and defend themselves entirely against human beings. In fact, what exactly is to stop them from eliminating mankind as their greatest threat?

So, the next time you consult your iphone or go to your fully-automated refrigerator for a glass of water, be afraid, be very afraid.

One Response leave one →
  1. June 2, 2011

    In case anyone is actually wondering:

    from Portugal, António Azevedo Coutinho and from Spain Count Mercurio Gâtine, Garcia de Loyosa Bishop of Osma, and Garcia de Padilla, commander of Calatrava

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