Azara Blog: Concern about the alleged danger of robots

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Date published: 2007/04/24

The BBC says:

Scientists have expressed concern about the use of autonomous decision-making robots, particularly for military use.

As they become more common, these machines could also have negative impacts on areas such as surveillance and elderly care, the roboticists warn.
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Autonomous robots are able to make decisions without human intervention. At a simple level, these can include robot vacuum cleaners that "decide" for themselves when to move from room to room or to head back to a base station to recharge.
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The researchers criticised recent research commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre and released in December 2006.

The discussion paper was titled Utopian Dream or Rise of the Machines? It addressed issues such as the "rights" of robots, and examined developments in artificial intelligence and how this might impact on law and politics.

In particular, it predicted that robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans, including housing and even "robo-healthcare".

"It's poorly informed, poorly supported by science and it is sensationalist," said Professor Owen Holland of the University of Essex.

"My concern is that we should have an informed debate and it should be an informed debate about the right issues."

The robo-rights scan was one of 246 papers, commissioned by the UK government, and complied by a group of futures researchers, the Outsights-Ipsos Mori partnership and the US-based Institute for the Future (IFTF).
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"I think that concerns about robot rights are just a distraction," said Professor Winfield.

"The more pressing and serious problem is the extent to which society is prepared to trust autonomous robots and entrust others into the care of autonomous robots."

It's good to see that at least someone is pointing out that this robot rights study was a complete waste of money. On the other hand, worrying about autonomous robots is not that much more pressing. The human race already has plenty of machines that act "autonomously". When your car crashes your air bag deploys without asking you whether it should. (And it happens occasionally that it causes you more damage than the crash would have, so it is not a cost-free autonomy.) When a fire starts in a building the sprinklers (hopefully) go on without asking anyone for permission. There are plenty of trains in the world which are driverless. Etc. If and when there is a specific situation when a new "autonomous" robot has some dangerous feature which requires further analysis, no doubt this will happen, either before or after the first disaster. Indeed, there are thousands of consultants and other hangers on in society who have nothing better to do with their lives than worry about health and safety. This is not a new problem.

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