The Economist does Robots

The Economist just published a special report, Rise of the Robots, that attempts to outline major trends in robotics research and the ramifications on the society of the future. In Immigrants from the Future, Oliver Morton correctly argues that robot designers and marketers do not yet understand the emotional consequences of robots in our midst– I will second that thesis quickly. In one of the richer sections, Good and Ready, Morton reports on the entrepreneurial activity in robotics, and points out just how Google and other information-age companies have a major role in the future robots that will pervade society: robots need information about all of us, but also about all things prosaic, like how to operate various human-centered designs such as locks and doorknobs. To the rescue shall come the Cloud, with services for robot recognition, interaction and operation. Robo-Google, as I called it in Robot Futures, is now part of the common parlance of robotics’ future.

There is one particularly egregious mistake that I feel compelled to point out in this broad report, and this relates to the military robotics section, Up in the air. Morton argues that robotic automation is essential to more effective war-fighting machines in some regimes, and he makes a certain confident claim:

..and for some purposes, such as defending ships against missile attacks, autonomous systems are both necessary (because of their speed of response) and legally and morally unproblematic, since they operate in areas where no civilians, and possibly no enemy compatants either, will be affected


This is a remarkable comment. Is Morton really claiming that autonomous, lethal, defensive systems don’t kill people? And that civilians aren’t endangered in such theatres of war? He may be too young to recall the USS Vincennes’ downing of an Iranian airliner, and he may not appreciate that the Aegis Combat Systems was a clear predecessor to the future’s even more automated defense systems.

Lethal robot systems will be just that- lethal. To argue otherwise, and suggest that they won’t hurt people who are innocent, is to ignore centuries of wartime statistics.


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