Robots R Us
A new book by the head of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab speculates on our future with robotic helpmeets.
And here comes the spooky part: it makes no difference where the controller is. In a world of satellite communications, the person controlling the carpentry robot in your high-end townhouse development might be sitting in a huge room full of other robot controllers in Bangalore, India, earning $1 an hour. Western countries could enjoy the benefits of low-wage immigrant labor without actually letting immigrants in, or facing any of there human problems or needs. It's an eerie prospect. Brooks says to look out for it.
Beyond these things, Flesh and Machines speculates about how robots can be programmed, and whether they can ever become "alive."
Brooks starts by quoting Isaac Asimov's famous laws of robots. In his 1950s sci-fi classic I, Robot, Asimov speculated on a future in which self-aware robots were numerous as trees, but all were governed by ironclad internal programming whose first law was:
Brooks endorses such a law, but cautions "we do not know how to build robots that are perceptive enough and smart enough to obey such laws." Any person knows that if she sees a car rushing toward a child see must yell, "Look out!" Basically, all the computing power in the world currently cannot grasp what a "harm through inaction" situation might be. For this reason, Brooks thinks that initial programming of robots must be very specific and restricted, as in, "you may do tasks A, B and C but nothing else."
Eventually, the pursuit of artificial intelligence may begin to move beyond that. Brooks, like so many others, throws up his hands on what this might mean, since "we are completely prescientific at this point on what consciousness is." Until consciousness can be understood or at least defined--and neither science nor religion is close--it will be impossible to say whether it could occur in electronic form. But then, our brains are mainly patterns of electricity, and we die when the electricity stops. Someday robots may earnestly insist they are conscious. First they must learn to mow the lawn.