Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Will Robots Rule the World

The cover of this month's Popular Science features a deliberately evil-looking robotic mountain lion with the headline in bright yellow bold print, "Robots Bite Back." The intriguing sub-title follows, What Happens When Out Machines Start Making Their Own Decisions?

In other words, can Terminator really happen? Not the time travel art, but the premise that bots one day go on a rampage against their human parents. It's a strange twist on Freud, of sorts. Kill the father. The only difference... unlike Oedipus, these offspring of the human race will not experience remorse.

If you pick up the mag you'll find the cover feature on page 58, titled The Terminator Scenario. The author Ben Austen begins with a salient reminder that robots not only can go bad, they already have. I missed the story last summer, but Austen did not and used it as a springboard into his own explorations regarding how close real science is fulfilling the creative musings of science fiction writers. Here's the original account from last summer.

Renegade unmanned drone wandered skies near nation’s capital
By John Cook

The U.S. Navy has admitted that it lost control of a helicopter drone during a test flight in Maryland earlier this month, leaving it to fly unguided for more than 30 minutes and 23 miles and violating Washington's restricted airspace. The drone's operators eventually regained control and got the drone safely back to base. The Navy tells the New York Times that a "software issue" caused the snafu.

The drone, a Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Navy Fire Scout, is supposed to have a failsafe system that directs it to land safely if it loses its communication link with the controller on the ground. That obviously didn't happen on the drone's Aug. 2 flight, and it made a beeline from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland, where it was being tested, toward Washington. It was roughly 40 miles from the capital before the Navy regained control.

Evidently the Navy went so far as to prepare F-16s to shoot the thing down. They did not know what it was going to do.

Robots are already doing all kinds of things for humans, like repetitive assembly work that would bore people out of their gourds. And we've all heard reports of the use of unmanned drones which are terrorizing people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What if this war in remote corners of the globe turns out to be nothing more than a testing ground for the Pentagon's new toys?

According to Wikipedia, there have been over 200 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing an uncertain quantity of people, estimates ranging from 1200 to near 2000. Yes, they did get some of their target bad guys, but I'm not sure what the PR ramifications are for this kind of thing. My guess would be that unmanned drones hovering near my village home would be just a tad frightening.

While the new technologies truly are remarkable, it isn't surprising that they can also make us uncomfortable. What happens when the bi-products of science begin to resent our taking them for granted? What happens when they stop inspiring awe and begin to demand that we worship them?

Well, we could go further with that but I gotta start my day. My computer is telling me it's time to get ready for work.

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