Finally, a breakthrough in human / Autobot relations

GateHouse — Alright, everyone calm down, South Korea’s all over drawing up a plan to handle the ethical dilemmas inherent in eventual human/robot interaction. Please, try to stop panicking. Return to your homes. Put down the flaming torches, and for the love of God, everyone put their shirts back on.

Yes, in this week’s contender for Story That Exposes The Most Enjoyable Disconnect Between Scientists And Actual Humans, a report recently surfaced saying that a team of folks in South Korea is working on a set of rules – well, they’re more guidelines than rules – to prevent humans from abusing robots, and, the story continues awesomely, “vice versa.” (It’s about time; my Roomba’s been holding my son hostage for about three weeks, and there’s no end in sight – it just keeps going on and on about “must have dust input more dust then go around in concentric circles avoid stairs that’s a wall” etc. etc.)

Sorry. I make fun of the Roomba because I love it, but also because I imagine it’ll be covered under the Robot Ethics Charter, which will be available for perusal in 2007, although it’ll only work on PCs, and only those running Internet Explorer 7 or higher with updated versions of Flash, Windows Media Player and all available security patches installed.

If it sounds like I’m mocking our impending robot overlords, here’s why: such a thing intimates that humans will, one day, build computers that work long enough to achieve artificial consciousness, and if you’ve ever in your life used Windows XP, well, I think you’ll join me in a nice safe glass of self-congratulatory pinot noir. Good luck with that, Killer Machines From The Future. If I’m ever being chased by one of you down a deserted street, I’ll just tweak your printer settings; if you’re anything like my computer at home you’ll be completely useless for three months.

The story goes on to say that the team assembling the Robot Ethics Charter, which – and I’m just going out on a limb here, but I think it’s safe to say has never played a single game of beach volleyball, is made up of “a five-member team of experts that includes futurists and a science-fiction writer.” Sadly, that science-fiction writer is George Lucas, so the Charter will have miserable acting, have bowel-clenchingly awful dialogue and include several inexcusable scenes of robots rolling around in a meadow.

Happily, the Charter will likely be based on an actual non-sucky science fiction writer, Issac Asimov, who issued in 1942 the famous three 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 be able to transform into a tractor trailer, F-16 aircraft or similarly awesome piece of machinery. It would also help if his voice sounded like that of actor Laurence Fishburne.
3. If we can’t make an iPod that plays video for more than 24 minutes at a time, why is anyone worried about this?

Alas, they are. “The government plans to set ethical guidelines concerning the roles and functions of robots as robots are expected to develop strong intelligence in the near future,” the South Korean ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said. In this regard, robots have a total leg up on all public school students in Mississippi.

Apparently, South Korea is one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies; a recent government report over there predicted that robots would routinely do surgeries by 2018, and that every household would have a robot sometime between 2015 and 2020. Also, there will be a great many more flying cars, and companies will look to space to house new warehouses; the first such company, Spacely Sprockets, is already looking into it.

I don’t mean to sound flip about the entities that will almost certainly one day vanquish us in a war that will drive the remaining human survivors underground, which would be kinda awesome, but I can think of a few problems on the national agenda that need attention first, such as all of them. Still, this all said, I do currently have a robot that vacuums my house; if I could secure another than mixes me drinks and another that knows how to potty-train a three-year-old, I’ll sign whatever silly Charter it wants. I’ll even throw in a free printer.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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