Saturday, December 21, 2013

A robot conundrum

Can we use them, once they are usable?

The trajectory of future technology is pretty clear. We already talk to computers, and they talk back. Soon they will be driving us around on the open roads. Where will it all end? What I want a robot for is to do my laundry and dust the house. What will it take to get there? Honestly, I think it will take consciousness.

Robots will eventually do all kinds of jobs. But to do general tasks like health care and home maintenance, how smart will they have to be? Very smart. And this leads to a conundrum- if robots are smart enough to fix up around the house, hang the Christmas lights, mow the yard, and do all things we don't want to do, won't they have the consciousness that gives them rights against being callously exploited to do just those jobs?

A great deal of intelligence would be required to be a general helper robot. We consider chimpanzees highly intelligent, and worthy of extensive protections of a humane character. But they are not nearly intelligent enough to be a handy helper around the house. Quite the opposite, in fact. Of course they were never designed for such a role, and in contrast share naturally much more of our emotional makeup, which leads to our mutual empathy. But still, it is hard to imagine that the requisite intelligence could happen without some modest dose of emotion and all-around empathy-engendering sense of self, of purpose, of social facility- in short, human-ness.

A robot-heavy future is portrayed in Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun, whose planet Solaria has a tiny population of humans, served by countless robots, affording all possible luxury. Robots run all factories, including those making more robots, keep house (i.e. mansions), attend all needs, serve as police, and raise children, all under the most tenuous supervision. It is a little far-fetched to imagine such possibilities without also considering that these robots have a consciousness that reaches as far as that of their masters, comprehending the workings of the world they are in, including their own role in it.

Would they have emotions regarding self-worth, self-determination, freedom? One would imagine that this comes with the territory of consciousness. Such beings must look out for their own interests to some degree, to be able to function. They need to experience pain or some analog in order to avoid damage. They need to function socially, interpreting the unavoidably complex and conflicting needs of humans in order to serve them. Jeeves comes to mind. They may not need to be quite as greedy, competitive, and self-centered as humans are, but some of such emotion is required for independent and useful agency.

Also, at a certain high level of functioning, we may not be able to tell very clearly what such beings feel inside, subjectively. Even if we think they are programmed to feel no social pains at being a servile class, or annoyance at being ordered about by, say, an ignorant or even mischievious child, their complexity at that level is likely going to make it impossible to know for sure. Many complicated computer systems already are quite a bit beyond anyone's full understanding, leading to the many software contracting fiascos in the news.

Ironically, Asimov's Solaria is a sort of hell where the humans neurotically isolate themselves from each other and tend to lose their capabilities and interests- a common syndrome of the overly well-off. So in such a future, it's no good, either for the robots or for us.

  • Krugman on the progressive program, rolling back the feudal class war.
  • Guess which debtors get the shaft, and which creditors get first dibs?
  • Fifth graders must not think for themselves!
  • Will CEOs and other corporate officers presiding over crime be prosecuted?
  • Gun nuts deserve intensive Freudian therapy.
  • Religion is not good for politics, nor is politics good for religion.
  • Yes, she really was a welfare queen, and so much more.
  • The US biomedical research establishment is unsustainable and cruel to trainees. STEM shortages are, incidentally, a "myth".
  • Annals of feudalism- temp workers.
  • Economics graph of the week, from Martin Wolfe, financial times. Where does all that superior US productivity go? Not to ordinary people, let alone to public services.

No comments:

Post a Comment