Movies such as Terminator and Robocop suggest a dystopian future where robots take on human tasks – in those examples – that of the police or the military; and create havoc with our fleshed species. Other robots, often without that humanoid look, but merely functional, are already working in factories – indeed, in 2015, one crushed a worker to death in Germany. On a more benign level, some truly can tread usefully where no blooded creature should have to, such as in places filled with smoke or gaseous fumes, to deal in rescue operations. We do not care to enumerate all the possibilities here, suffice it to say that we want to look at the more dreadful scenarios described.
Optimists believe that robots will create a wonderful new world. Coupled with perhaps a chip inside of our brain to enhance our thinking or to increase upon demand that feel-good sensation through an instruction to release more dopamine into our system, we will be able to unleash our creative potential or maximize our hedonistic pleasures, while robots not only do all the dirty, boring, dangerous, and servile work.
An extremely positive view of the potential of robots is that they could become not only self-repairing, but self-replicating. Such devices would be, it is perceived, especially useful in working on moons or planets beyond our own, perhaps to lay the groundwork for eventual colonization. Why we would want to colonize a world other than our own, theoretically already improved by these same robot-machines, is an unanswered question. For it will either be the case that our world will have been ruined by heat, cold, virus or radiation before our savior-robots can enter upon the scene to save us; or, they will save us before we can destroy ourselves, so the need to venture to a more forbidding heavenly body will become moot.
I think that this last vision, that of the robot-machine which can repair and replicate itself is the easiest to refute.
Let us first consider this as a cyborg, and compare it to a human being. Repairs – let those be understood as prescription of drugs, and subjection to surgery, are left to the medical profession. Replication has traditional been left to couples. We can see that the cyborg will not be able to replicate as a human can. In principal, one cyborg could repair another, on condition that an adequate supply of parts was on hand. One cyborg, running under the same program, might even be capable of constructing a duplicate of itself. Again, a problem would occur once parts run out.
Depletion of necessary supplies is not the only obstacle. Let us assume two man-machines, but that both are somehow knocked out simultaneously, as by a meteor. It would not matter if a theoretical colony had three or four, in a space that was too confined. What about a powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP)? What about a plain, aleatory mistake made by a computer chip, the same as a random mutation in our DNA?
Of course, our science visionaries see something more than a mere cyborg at work. It would be a gigantic robotic machine, which would – somewhere in our planetary system (the universe is still beyond our management in terms of time!) – mine the required raw materials, smelt and refine them, shape and mill them, store these component parts until all are finished, and finally assemble a finished product (perhaps with an intermediate cyborg – this is easier to imagine), and the finished product will repeat the cycle. (This idea I have read about in what I believe was the monthly Analog – Science Fiction Science/Fact Magazine sometime in the 1980s, but this did not include the idea of cyborgs in the cycle – which seem to be an absolute necessity both for the final products to be made, and as an explanation of how these could actually be fabricated – otherwise, it would be like a human trying to perform surgery on his back-bone or his kidneys!)
Easier to visualize than the above monstrosity is the military and policing function of robots. Already an example of the latter is at work in China, (Tracy You, “Robotic traffic policemen equipped with facial recognition cameras start patrolling the streets of China”, Daily Mail, August 7, 2019). However, the fact that this android can snap pictures and put itself into an area so as to reroute traffic does not seem to make it any cleverer than an electronically-controlled exploration vehicle in some vaguely-disguised human form. The path to becoming a “Robocop” is still a distant reality here. The worst case scenario is that a programmer gets these devices to maliciously charge important figures with traffic violations, or block the path of an important convoy.
Nevertheless, let us suppose that these “police” become more intelligent. In this case, they would be akin to police dogs, which according to some critics, in the case of drugs, intentionally find what they are expected too, in return for a quid pro quo. In the case of the robot, there would be no such corruption possible from it, but it could be programmed to be corrupt. Suppose that a police department, as is often alleged, is expected to issue x-number of traffic tickets per day. Now, who would control that the traffic android was not programmed to be overzealous? More frightening is the possibility of facial recognition (a not 100% guaranteed art in itself) coupled with interpretation of criminal intent (confusing a hand coming out of an inside coat pocket with anything other than a weapon with exactly such a prohibited device)! How will our authorities have programmed our cyborg – to kill, maim, momentarily incapacitate (Taser), subdue, merely hold, or perhaps even arrest? How will we be sure that it actually read our Miranda Rights, or their equivalent?
The military robot would be a glorified equivalent of the one doing police work. Of course, it would be more violent. We might imagine collateral damage as a definite result of the use of such a device. Our greatest concern would be to make sure that their range of action would not be beyond the battlefield for which they were destined.
We could imagine, that well-programmed, they could perform be less prone to killing innocents than the joy-stick operators behind drones. If a shot came from what was supposed to be a private home, for example, with a couple of robots capable of something like direction finding, the exact position of the shooter could be determined. Should the shooter hold a hostage, the speed and accuracy of our cyborg should be able to put down the attacker without harm to his intended victim.
In a clearly defined war zone, the android would be programmed to stay therein, and to go no further. This would be like the one-time hyper-text mark-up language for mapping the clickable area of a picture.
Again, as mentioned in another scenario further above, what happens if the android becomes damaged, and goes berserk, and outside of its area of operation?
Control robots, or even human controllers, would control the area off-limits to these programmed warriors.
What we would not want to see is self-flying robots. Drones are good enough.
In conclusion, we do not see robots in themselves as a cause for a dystopian future. The worker who got killed in his factory by his robotic associate was killed by a machine. It was an industrial accident. The effect was no different from that of any accident which could happen in a factory (and I could recite up to 5 actual or potential cases from my own short experience in heavy industry).
As for armies of robots, or a police state based upon the same, this is something that is hard to envision.
Perhaps the best reason that authorities would never want the robot population to get out of hand, is the possibility of a double created by an enemy, to serve for the purposes of espionage. We would want to be very sure that these programmed machines were always on our side.
Note: For the purposes of this article, we have used the words robot, android, and cyborg interchangeably. The first of these 3 terms is the only one apt for the purely mechanical items without any attempt to appear to be any kind of living organism, but includes the other two terms. The cyborg is the most sophisticated, and is not considered to belong here, but we defer to those who create common usage.
October 14, 2019,
© 2019, Paul Karl Moeller