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Voices / Column

Are we headed for a robotic world?

Some would argue that we’ve already arrived at one

Saxtons River

If you’re like me, movies with battle robots and alien creatures boasting artificial intelligence — an oxymoron if ever there was one — leave you cold.

But maybe we should think again. We might learn something about our future by watching Star Trek and Terminator reruns, not to mention newer films that focus on robotic warfare.

With Google’s recent purchase of Boston Dynamics, the firm that makes battle robots which look like galloping headless horses, people are starting to take note of what our future might look like. Amazon drones that drop our purchases at the door are one thing, but military drones and their progeny are quite another.

The U.S. military is already conducting studies focusing on robots that would be able to replace humans to perform many combat functions on the battlefield. Known as “tactical autonomous combatants,” or TACs, the robots could work in all kinds of environments, including air, space, and underwater, according to military sources.

Such devices would be capable of operating largely autonomously. As one Department of Defense official put it on usmilitary.about.com, “We’re talking about having the capability of replacing humans.” By 2025, “robotic warfare may be a reality.”

* * *

I don’t know about you, but I find that prospect pretty terrifying.

Some devices, already in use by Korea and Israel at border posts, have the ability to detect human faces from two miles away. They can fire machine guns or grenade launchers devoid of human operation. As a recent report in The Week noted, “The need for humans to participate in armed conflicts could soon be over. Military hardware will soon consist of ‘autonomous robots that know neither pity nor fear.’”

Wouldn’t that make war a horrific game in which the guys with the biggest, best, smartest robots win, no matter who the players and what the stakes?

* * *

War aside, what kind of a world would it be if robots become superior to humans?

What will the economic impact be when companies like Caterpillar, which already plans to operate robotic machinery by 2021, reduce their work force?

Robots are already working in agriculture, domestic care, and medicine. First used in the 1980s for prostate surgery, the technology has progressed to the point where it is now used for hysterectomies, joint replacements, open-heart surgeries, and kidney surgeries. The doctor doesn’t even need to be in the room or at the hospital since she controls the robot through a computer. (God forbid the electricity fails.)

This technology might save money and let people who can’t travel have the benefit of the best surgeons, but it’s still expensive.

And what happens if the doctor incorrectly programs the computer, which can’t be adjusted once surgery begins?

* * *

“Both scientific research and science fiction begin with the same two words: ‘What if?’”

That is what University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios noted in a CNN interview.

Jules Verne, who wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, must have asked himself that question when he imagined submarines.

Leonardo da Vinci wondered the same thing, no doubt, when in 1495 he sketched his “mechanical knight,” resulting in a suit of armor automated by a system of pulleys and levers displayed at the Court of Milan. The suit could stand, sit, raise its visor, and move its arm. In the 1950s, scientists discovered his notes and recreated the “robot,” which they thought would really have worked.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey starred a robot called HAL 9000. HAL was able to mechanically control the spaceship Discovery, but he represented the public’s fear of technology gone awry. Another movie that looks at robotic domination in the domestic sphere is I, Robot. Seems to me these might be the first films we naysayers of movie robots should watch first.

At the very least it will help to keep our minds off Google’s new headless horse or Samsung’s SGR-1 as it patrols the borders of Korea and Israel.

As far as I can see, there’s nothing artificial about that kind of intelligence.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #235 (Wednesday, January 1, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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