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.