Killer Robots? They Are Reality. Should We Be Concerned?
As I write this my robot vacuum cleaner hums away downstairs quietly doing its thing, sometimes rumbling over the air vent in such a way that I can hear it upstairs in my office. It has a name - Sharknado.
The robot vacuum is great. I was initially skeptical. How could it do a decent job ? It’s a rolling disk with brushes. How could it do anything close to the job of a conventional vacuum? But after 2 sessions with the thing I was convinced. As I marveled at the nice fresh family room courtesy of our new gadget I became a believer.
It was yesterday that I heard my wife yell to the kids that they needed to pick their headphones up off the floor “so the robot could clean” their rooms. The sentence gave me pause.
It won't be long before yards are cut, kids are driven to school, dogs are walked, beds are made, and meals are cooked by robots on a large scale. The trajectory seems clear. The robots are coming.
We are just in the opening scenes of this new world and we would be wise to have a serious debate about the role of robots in our society, now. The ethical questions we are and will be presented with in a robotized world are and will be profound. They will challenge our understanding of what it means to be human. We will have to consider seriously the prospect of robots as potentially sentient beings. (Beyond sci-fi movies.) What does it mean generally if a robot can “think”? What if a robot can “feel”? What does that mean for us in a real (forgive me) nuts and bolts sense?
In a more narrow sense we need to be aware of the fact that robots represent a leap in warfare, and that the leap is happening right now. If robot slaves can go to war and do the bidding of governments (and other entities with resources), governments are going to use them. Imagine a Golden Horde of automated soldiers sweeping into a city to raise it. Consider how one would counter such an assault. (Likely with other robots.) Consider what it means to have these machines wandering the landscape. Machines that with time may prove more robust than relatively fragile humans. We’d better make sure we do some real hard thinking before we end up with a Terminator-like situation. No joke and God forbid.
The introduction of automatons into factory jobs has lead to the displacement of hundreds of workers, and has forced surviving workers to work harder, longer, and more intricate jobs. Christoph Walter, a robotics engineer in Freiburg, Germany, doesn’t see automated labor as an issue, though. When interviewed in the documentary, he explains, “We don’t want to replace a worker [with a robot]. We want to support workers.”
It’s a nice sentiment that would likely cause Marx to turn in his grave, but regardless of intentions, the introduction of automated labor is bound to change the landscape of industry in some way. In one instance, a Chinese tech executive brought in robots when facing a labor shortage, curtailing his total number of employees and completely changing the way automated labor can be utilized. Although in this situation there was simply a dearth of available workers, what would stop higher-ups from replacing factory workers who, say, went on strike, with robots? The ramifications, as the documentary is right to imply, are huge.