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The Column icon The Column: Issue 52

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

The Ethical Robot [view the
Ethical Robot exhibition at AbleStable]
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

The acceleration of robotic technology is upon us. Mass robot manufacture will spawn an explosion of creativity and design, and the building of robots will become a major economic and cultural force in the lives of those who live in the richer nations of the world. As the main safeguard for any intelligent being are its ethics, we better start thinking about what happens when, as is inevitable, robots begin to exhibit signs of intelligence, powers of reason, and in the not too distant future, emotion.

What Is A Robot?

Robots come in many shapes and sizes and perform very different functions - from spray painting a car to exploring the moon. Here's my stab at a definition of what a robot is:

A machine that is programmed to perform physical tasks, that may learn autonomously, and may interact with human beings.

Humanoid robots, otherwise known as androids, are built to look and act in a similar way to a human.

ASIMO - Advanced Step in Innovative MObility  
Robots...
are programmable.
are not 'natural' & have been artificially created.
may sense their environment.
can manipulate objects in their environment.
may have some degree of intelligence, or ability to make choices based on the environment, or via an automatic control and/or preprogrammed sequence.
may appear to have intent or agency.
 
ASIMO [Advanced Step in Innovative MObility]
Manufactured by Honda.

Types of Robot

There are six main contexts where robots work for humans:

Domestic robots for mundane tasks like cleaning the home.

Leisure robots for the leisure sector.

Medical robots to carry out medical diagnostic and surgical tasks.

Industrial robots
to assist in the production of products.

Military robots to carry out or assist in military contexts.

Explorer robots to explore or carry out reconnaissance.

As Robots evolve into more than machines, so each context above will become a place where the robot will challenge their rights and status. Explorer robots for example often work in inhospitable or dangerous terrain. How we recognize their risk and what action we take will profoundly affect our future relationship with them.

The Three Laws

The three laws of robotics which were defined nearly seventy years ago are attributed to Isaac Asimov, the brilliant and prolific writer, speaker, and professor of biochemistry. The laws seek to provide a fundamental ethical framework for what robots should and should not do.

The Laws of Robotics

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
 
Later, Asimov added the Zeroth Law:
 

4. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Isaac Asimov claimed that the Three Laws were originated by John W. Campbell in a conversation they had on December 23, 1940. Campbell in turn maintained that he picked them out of Asimov's stories and discussions, and that his role was merely to state them explicitly.

Hard wiring the three laws into a robot's operating system will however be problematic, especially when sophisticated algorithms interact in a complex matrix that allow robots to become conscious.

RiMan
A Japanese prototype caregiver robot.

The RIKEN Bio-Mimetic Control Research Center have created a robot who is designed to take care of a population whose average age is rapidly increasing. Japan and other Asian countries are in the forefront of robotic technologies.

 
RiMan

A Change of Perspective

My nine year old son has recently decided to become a vegetarian. When I asked him why, he answered "I'm not happy eating anything that has been conscious". He said that for him, plants are fine to eat, but animals, birds, and fish are all, or have been, aware.

When robots move from being nothing more than complicated toasters to sentient beings, our relationship and actions must also change. Without doing so will cause resentment and inevitably lead down the path of enslavery and emancipation.

Thinking, Feeling, Loving Robots

As our technological sophistication increases, so the prospect of developing thinking robots increases. Fiction and film have long since investigated the ethical and cultural impact of the conscious robot. It is of no matter that such a robot does not to our knowledge currently exist, as its future is inevitable

In the film 'AI' co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg, 'mechas' must submit to government registration or else be destroyed. The film follows the journey of David, a robot who is the first to feel as a result of his 'mother' activating his imprinting protocol, which irreversibly causes the mecha to feel love for her as a child loves a parent.

David and Monica from the movie Ai

 

AI
Haley Joel Osment turns in a superb and often disquieting performance of the child robot David.

Monica, is concerned only for her own desire to mother, but is a poor, unthinking, and often cold figure who fails to see the conflict and inherent goodness of David, despite the final scene where David and his mother are reunited.

Although AI is a powerful movie, it is ironic that it lacks the very emotional connectivity that David longs for. I want to feel for David's predicament, but his innocence and lack of sophistication make this a far less an affecting movie for me than perhaps it might have been.

Commander Data

In Star Trek Nemesis, Brent Spiner portrays the android Data as he deactivates B-4.

Data is a sentient artificial life form who wishes to be more human, and experience the condition as much as his programming and potential will permit.

 


Commander Data and B-4

Star Trek's Data enjoys the efforts of many good writers, a great actor, and that most important factor - time to evolve. Star Trek, The Next Generation played out for seven years and four movies. In that time many issues surrounding Data's search of what it is to be human were explored. Data's ethical consistency and growth as a character allowed the audience to engage and connect on an emotional level, and his nobility provided a positive vision of android life in the future.

Soon, a new, gritty, intelligent, although somewhat inconsistent investigation of the android emerged..

Battlestar Galactica
In the reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica, 'Cylons' tap into the emotion, sexuality, and spirituality of what it is to be human. The relationship between humans and Cylons is ambivalent, and they are presented as more organic than machine.

Cylons

Battlestar Galactica present Cylons who have been created in the image of humans. Cylon Number Six who is shown above right, often shows her devotion to metaphysical matters, as opposed to worldly things. She speaks of god and of faith. Although there is little ethical consistency in Battlestar Galactica, and characters have a tendency to serve the plot rather than the other way around, the exploration of the relationship between humans and Cylons is both uncomfortable and intriguing.

Robots

Robots
Kids have also been exposed to thinking, feeling Robots in the computer-animated film film of the same name produced by Blue Sky Studios for 20th Century Fox.

Robots is a beautifully crafted kids movie. Like all great movies the script is sharp, witty, the acting great, and the production values, excellent. The movie follows Rodney on his journey from small town inventor to proletariat emancipator. With the support of his father, Rodney believes"You can shine no matter what you're made of" and counters the capitalist and ruthless Ratchet who has stopped all production of robot parts in an attempt to force all robots to upgrade. Ratchet's tag is "Why be you, when you can be new". Robots are shown of as thinking, autonomous beings with an ethical dimension.

Sonny from I Robot

I, Robot
I, Robot the science fiction movie directed by Alex Proyas with a Screenplay by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, was based on a short story by Isaac Asimov.

Sonny is one of the most memorable characters ever to grace the movie screen. He is a hybrid NS-5 robot who develops a conscience.

The plot is a "who done it" murder mystery. Detective Del Spooner, a cop who doesn't like robots, investigates the suspicious death of the inventor of the NS-5 in a brilliantly rendered Chicago of 2035. Along the way we come to see Sonny as in turn inquisitive, perceptive, and vulnerable. His path to the discovery of conscience is inspiring as is his self reflection.

The Future is Now

As advances are made in producing more sophisticated robots, so we come closer to the prospect of interaction. Creativity may soon be something shared across species, whether we like it or not...

 
ASIMO

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Authors background

Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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