Saturday, June 24, 2006

Robbie vs. Predator

Asimov's Robot Stories famously center on his self-admittedly flawed 3 Laws of Robotics

1. Don't hurt humans.
2. Obey humans but don't violate (1).
3. Keep yourself safe but don't violate (1 & 2). )

and how various subtle loopholes in the laws can lead to all kinds of trouble--sort of like happens with insufficiently robust code all the time nowadays.

Anyway, I've been noticing a trend that violates his laws in a blatantly unsubtle way: the current enthusiasm at the Pentagon and in the pop-sci press for robot warriors. Bombing or machine gunning civilians is a pretty horrendously awful violation of Law 1--unless you're so right-wing that you don't think that terrorists (or innocent Muslim civilians) count as humans for purposes of the law. Much of the press adulation centers on pilotless Predator drone aircraft, which strike me as not robots in the precisely autonomous implications of that word, since they're remote-controlled from U.S. Central Command in South Florida. An actually autonomous robot doing such things--besides the fact that the current Wars on Scary Nouns (drugs, "terrah") are giant war crimes anyway--would have as an additional horror the possibility of autonomous robots deciding that they weren't particularly interested in not following the advice of Futurama's cigar-smoking robot Bender to "Kill all Humans!" While this is a goofy science-fiction cliché, I'm still not eager to see the Pentagon make it the goofily clichéd yet entirely actual death of Humanity.

While I share with most Earthlings an abhorrence for the War on Terra--with or without killer robots--I'm not such a pacifist as to believe in the impossibility of a (more or less) just war (St. Augustine, WWII and all that) as such, so assuming a non-rogue state (i.e. we're obviously talking about, say, Canada or Sweden here, not the American Empire) was involved in, say, a humanitarian intervention to stem the genocide in the Sudan, a legitimate argument could be made for using what animé calls mecha to keep what animé calls orga out of harm's way. I'd be okay with this, provided the mecha remain remote-controlled by us orga, rather than autonomous. That said, though, I think that most of the proximately probably wars (i.e. the ones involving nation-building) do better with boots on the ground that can learn to become trusted neighborhood cops, not with a bunch of criminal Shock n' Awe--or whatever stupid macho metal band name they come up with next--carpet bombings by bots in the sky remote-controlled by some well-meaning 19-yr.-old kid in South Florida unintentially replicating the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene in Apocalypse Now via satellite uplink.

I can think of one GREAT use for autonomous robots in war zones, though. Robots programmed with something like Asimov's First Law ("Thou Shalt Not Kill," might be couched in a vocabulary W. has heard before) would be good at searching villages for enemy soldiers without the possibility for "human errors" like My Lai and Haditha.

(Frivolous terminological note: Since we're on the topic of 1950's sci-fi tropes here, I've often thought it would be a good throw-away premise if future historians in a sci-fi tale referred to our American Empire as the Western British Empire, analagous to referring to the Byzantines as the Eastern Roman Empire. While the differences between the current hegemon and that presided over by Disraeli's Empress of India are myriad, they might seem like subtle esoterica best left to microspecialists compared to the market-fundamentalist Anglospheric commonalities that will loom so large in the eyes of people a millenium hence.)

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