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Slave — or master?

03 March 2017


AI: in The Rise of the Robots (radio), scientists contemplated the fantastical

AI: in The Rise of the Robots (radio), scientists contemplated the fantastical

ALAN WINFIELD is the only Professor of Robot Ethics in the world. You could take that one of two ways: as a mark of distinction, or of redundancy. Professor Win­field reckons that there ought to be more of his type, and that ethics should be taught as part of any undergraduate engineering course. And you can see how the thrill of the unique must wear thin after a while: the keynote speaker at a conference of one.

In The Life Scientific (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Professor Win­­field made a strong case for the field, although it entails a bewil­dering variety of disciplines, extending from the health and safety chal­lenges presented by drones to the dangers of robotic weapons pro­­grammed to pull the trigger without the need for a human prompt.

We are already surrounded by robots, Professor Winfield says; but we don’t call them that because we have given them functions. Robots are the creatures of our anxious imagination, serving no other cause than to enslave us all.

If we are to be afraid, it is of the dumb robots we have already rather than the clever ones of science fiction. The job of the robot ethicist is therefore to ensure that these dumb creatures carry out their tasks in ways that do not inadvertently infringe human rights — such as the human right to keep possession of a limb while having an Amazon pack­age delivered.

Being Radio 4 listeners, we cannot resist wandering into the dreamy up­­lands of ontological speculation; and Adam Rutherford gave us the oppor­tunity in the last part of his series The Rise of the Robots (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week).

Whatever the reality of robot tech­nology, the thought experi­ments that Artificial Intelligence (AI) gives access to are rich and in­­structive. It says something of human­ity’s collective sense of self-worth that we don’t mind creating machines that can out-perform us at pretty much any task, physical or intellectual, but we quake with fear at the thought that these machines become aware that they are better.

No discussion of AI is complete without Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose role in the film The Termin­ator repre­sents the perfect marriage of robot and acting ability. But laughable as the prospect of AI wars might be, the scientists inter­viewed were far happier to entertain the fantastical than Professor Win­field had been.

Misrepresentation was the cause of an uncharacteristically forthright episode of More or Less (World Service, Friday). Normally, the pre­senters of this splendid antidote to “fake news” pick apart its subjects with forensic objectivity. But, last week, it got personal, when an article by the presenter Ruth Alex­ander was quoted in support of the Swedish immigrant rape story that inspired President Trump’s much-quoted speech. It emerges that the article dates back five years, and pretty much says the exact opposite of what it is supposed to have said.

The only good that can come from such instances is to reinforce the case for a publicly funded BBC.

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