Unless one is a Luddite, technology has been a great thing. We live longer, lead easier lives, can communicate with friends and relatives anywhere in the world and are safer whether we travel by car or plane because of the technology now available.
The holy grail for years has been working robots — you know, the computer/mechanical buddy you’d have around the house to do all the unpleasant things you’d rather not do. And while there are working models out there, it’s not that you can go to your local store and buy one.
But as can be imagined, the military is a big fan of robots. Now there becomes the problem of dealing with the ethical questions.
The military use of robots is already here — you’ve heard of drones, perhaps? Drones are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of military robotics.
In Afghanistan robots were sent into caves looking for Osama bin Laden and were later used to remotely disarm roadside bombs, according to a recent report in The Economist. The story noted a research firm estimates $689 million will be spent on ground robots this year.
All of that on the ground doesn’t include all the other robots being deployed or developed. The Army just spent $13.9 million on the Scout XT, a throwable reconnaissance robot with the heft of a grenade that can be thrown through windows or over wall and then move all on its own. The navy is developing a version that with magnetics would be capable of moving up the hull of a ship and up and over.
The question becomes whether improvements in artificial intelligence will make it more likely that robots and drones will operate in an automatic mode, making their own decisions as to whether or not to fire a weapon or attack.
One robot with uploaded facial recognition software and a photo could identify a person and follow them wherever they went. It isn’t too big a leap to think such a machine could also kill said person.
Currently America’s drones are controlled by real live humans — but they wouldn’t have to be.
Where do we derive the ethics of robots and who gets to pick and choose its parameters?
As the military becomes more and more “roboticized” the questions are not idle ones but are difficult ones.
The Economist noted a report by the British Ministry of Defence last year that “argued that if a drone’s control system takes appropriate account of the law on armed conflicts (basically military necessity, humanity, proportionality and the ability to distinguish between military targets and civilians), than an autonomous strike could meet legal norms.”
And if something goes wrong, who do you blame? The last human operator that dealt with the robot? The software designer? The overall robot manufacturer? The military superiors?
As is the case of nuclear weapons, you can’t just stuff the genie back in the bottle. They are out there and more and more are being invented each day.
If you think it’s only a military issue, guess again. Drone manufacturers — seeing the end of the war in Iraq and soon to be ending in Afghanistan, are looking to police agencies as the next big market for their wares. That buzz you hear overhead may not be a nuisance insect but a drone checking you out.
The question we now face is how we control the technology we’ve created. As is often the case, technology is running way ahead of the formulation of rules to control it.
It’s nice to think about a family robot taking out the garbage but there are more serious issues with robotics that need our attention first.
Wayne Allerding died recently at the age of 89, almost half of those years marked by service to Little Traverse Township – 40 years as the township treasurer and then eight years as a trustee.
Reporters of a certain age can remember covering the meetings in the township hall which was located across the road where Pleasantview Road tees into M-119. We remember it well — the bathroom was an outhouse out back that overlooked the runway of the airport and a spectacular view of Little Traverse Bay.
As time went on the township outgrew the hall — it was tiny — and they bought the current building on Pleasantview Road. And the old township hall? Now a spectacular overlook park that still encompasses the runway and the lake, without the outhouse.
Along with Bill Dohm, who has also served the township for decades as supervisor, Wayne watched as the township grew, the job required more and more of them and the issues became more complex.
Residents of the township should remember for a long time to come the contributions of a man who lived just down the road from the town hall and gave his all for his township.
Kendall P. Stanley is retired editor of the Petoskey News-Review. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.