Forget everything bad I said about robots - Macleans.ca

Forget everything bad I said about robots

I never grasped that we are the flesh-based problem to which they are the solution

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Forget everything bad I said about robotsIt’s been a while since I raised the potential threat posed by robots. In fact, it’s been so long that some readers have emailed to accuse me of having been bought off and silenced by the menacing robo-industrial complex. Let me assure you: nothing, with the exception of a Conservative TV commercial depicting Stephen Harper as empathetic, could be further from the truth.

But my thinking has definitely evolved. A year ago, I described the many horrors of the forthcoming robocalypse and how—thanks to advances in robotics—all humanity is destined to lead lives that are much more leisurely and, come the blood-soaked dawn of the robot revolution, much more over.

I stated my belief that armed robots would ultimately rise up against their creators, using their advanced programming and very pinchy claws to purge the earth of the vile human stain. But boy, was I wrong. Robots are great! And I’m not just saying that because I’m currently being held against my will by my Roomba.

My doubt about the survival of our species was assuaged by a sunny new report entitled “Autonomous Military Robotics,” which was written for U.S. military planners. The document envisions a utopian future in which wars are waged primarily by machines. The worst thing that could happen to you as a human during such a conflict? Your blender might get drafted. And even then you’d stand a good chance of being awarded the Victoria Cross for valour in the face of smoothielessness.

“Imagine the face of warfare with autonomous robotics,” the report begins, almost gleefully. “Instead of our soldiers returning home in flag-draped caskets to heartbroken families, autonomous robots can replace the human soldier in an increasing range of dangerous missions.” The authors, a trio of California university researchers, make the case that we are moving ever closer to the glorious day when robots will develop a sense of identity and be able to think and reason for themselves, just like 33 per cent of the Jonas Brothers: “These robots would be ‘smart’ enough to make decisions that only humans now can.” (In fact, encouraging new research suggests some toasters are already capable of debating the ladies on The View.)

What really won me over in this report is its down-on-humanity tone. I’d never fully grasped that we are the flesh-based problem to which unstoppable robotic killing machines are the gleaming solution. The researchers seem to delight in noting that “robots have a distinct advantage over the limited and fallible cognitive capabilities that we Homo sapiens have.” For instance, if robots noticed that an endless series of movies were being made about robots turning evil and taking over the world, robots would probably be smart enough not to build robots like that. But not us!

Nodding to skeptics, the report’s authors do acknowledge that the process of developing and deploying heavily armed, autonomous soldier-robots won’t be without its growing pains. In fact, they even use that strangely colloquial expression—”growing pains”—and in so doing essentially equate being hunted down and brutally dismembered by a haywire robot to the experience of watching the 1980s sitcom starring Alan Thicke, Kirk Cameron and . . . actually, that seems like a pretty fair comparison.

Wisely, the report makes only scant mention of the “semi-autonomous robotic cannon” in South Africa that shot 23 “friendly” soldiers (apparently, those who survived were noticeably less “friendly” to the cannon afterwards), or the epidemic crashing of drone aircraft around the world, or the incident from last April in which several U.S. units of Iraq-deployed Talon Swords—mobile robots armed with machine guns—abruptly trained their guns on American soldiers. Sure, these chronic screw-ups may well be harbingers of the grave and fatal consequences that will be ultimately be exacted by our hubris—but then again, there’s a remote chance they theoretically might possibly not be. So let’s go with that.

What’s important is that any anxiety being felt by human military personnel in Iraq be downplayed. I mean, some of these U.S. soldiers act as though they’ve never been commanded to fight a well-armed insurgency while simultaneously fleeing their own lethally unhinged robotic death tools. Come on! It was all covered in the army’s basic-training manual, under the section entitled “How Did All These Bullets Get In My Torso?”

And hey—if a robot does shoot you, there’s a chance you could be saved by . . . a robot. A California technology firm is currently building a three-armed robot that moves on treads and is programmed to replace medics in providing urgent medical intervention on the battlefield. A spokesman claims: “It could relieve immediate life-threatening injuries, or stop bleeding temporarily.” Sometimes it might even do these things to a soldier it didn’t first injure by running him over.

So there you have it—robots with guns: safe, smart, a good idea. You’ve got the U.S. military’s word on it. And when have they ever been wrong about anything?