Robotics, once the almost exclusive purview of science fiction, is now approaching a point at which it will be capable of dramatic influence over humanity. These advancements are as much a lesson in caution as in the wonder of the human imagination.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
These are the Three Laws of Robotics. They have existed since the ground-breaking Runaround was published in 1942 by the science fiction visionary and futurist Isaac Asimov, and their influence has framed our every interaction with the development of mechanized beings. Today we see creations that approach, and in some ways even surpass, Asimov’s theories about a future of which few even dared to dream.
All of that has begun to change. The way humanity changes — with it, or against — will determine not just the definitions and future of artificial life, but ours as well.
Robotics have moved far beyond the cybernetic fantasies of history and already function in so many facets of our lives that they have become an almost mundane subject of debate. Industry relies more on automated production every day, and our most popular search engines are governed by an ever-learning mind of virtual synapses that we thoughtlessly accept in its guidance of the information we pursue. We maintain such banal confidence because, until now, robots have been little more than complicated tools — a metaphorical hammer in the hands of humanity’s most ambitious builders. Now robots are becoming the builders, as well as the equipment.
France and Japan, via Airbus and the Joint Robotics Laboratory, have begun a four year mission to incorporate humanoid robots into aerospace manufacture. Along with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), these companies are working to develop humanoid robots that can navigate the confined space of a fuselage, while working fast enough to be considered efficient labor. Should they succeed, they will have created the first humanoid robots built for large-scale manufacturing. They’ll perform the most hazardous work, leaving humans to tasks that require a level of finesse that robotics has yet to attain.
Japan is taking the concept of robotic employees even further, however. After their Hybrid Assistive Limb exoskeleton was recognized by the Japanese government as a legitimate medical device, the ominous-sounding Cyberdyne Inc. has decided to create a miniature city of helpful robots. Cybernetic City’s citizenry will join humanity and robotic denizens in medical, agricultural, and industrial functions. The community will exist in Tsukuba, Cyberdyne’s headquarters and the essential Japanese equivalent to Silicon Valley. Everything from hospitals to robot-accessible parks will be part of the experiment, staffed and trafficked by artificial and organic beings in a heady mix that sounds like a 1980s science fiction screenplay come to life.
But before a robot can someday run for president, they’re going to have to solve their image problem. The closer that artificial life gets to actual life, the more it disturbs us. “Nadine” is a groundbreaking combination of animatronics and artificial intelligence, but she takes a hard dive into the Uncanny Valley as soon as she’s activated. A visage meant to be friendly and familiar is haunting from any angle.
“Transhumanist” presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan believes that “in 2020 you will see a field emerge with competing AI robots for president, who want to debate and discuss policy. It’s unlikely any of them will be sophisticated enough to take on the job, but I do believe by 2028 robots may be suitable for political office—including the presidency.” It sounds far-fetched, certainly. But robots are already latching on to a significant number of jobs with their cold, dead hands.
According to employment website Adzuna, about 1 in 11 jobs being advertised will go to robots by 2035. Adzuna co-founder Doug Monro believes that “if you want to remain relevant in the workplace, you need to develop skills that cannot be easily automated.” He terms his findings a “risk of robotic invasion,” as will the astonishing number of jobless humans, should his predictions prove even remotely accurate.
And robot competence continues to climb. “Soft” robotics are just around the corner in medicine, approaching remote surgical procedures that are almost as creepy as they are fascinating. The pneumatic silicone appendages can harden or soften for the purpose of their use in a manner that would leave our own Milo Yiannopoulos in a state of envious hatred. They could be used to gently move organs out of the way during surgical procedures, or to do those procedures themselves. The only real obstacle left is testing for safety before your neurosurgeon comes with a version number instead of a medical degree.
To accelerate all of this development, people like X Prize Foundation’s Peter Diamandis and IBM Watson’s David Kenny are collaborating to set up a race for significant artificial intelligence advancements by 2020. They’ll charge competitors to create ways for artificial life to overcome some of the most common obstacles, whether that means allowing a robot to interpret and respond to natural conversation, or merely to walk without issue on varying terrain.
We live in exciting times, and all of these examples are fascinating stories in their own right. And while we cannot stop the flow of progress, it could very well be the next generation that redefines our most basic principles of existence. Providing jobs to a population that is consistently outclassed by employees without need of sustenance or benefits is the stuff of Asimov’s worlds no longer, and it will be up to us to ensure that our greatest innovations do not do us more harm than good.
Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.