Friday, December 22, 2006

"Arise, Ye Robots of Stout Heart and Mind!"

When I think of Great Britain, a number of things come to mind.... fish and chips, Monty Python, the Rolling Stones, and the Queen among them. That kingdom has always been indelibly linked with the United States. Of course our nation began as England's colony, and for much of our history Great Britain has been our closest ally. When we stumble into disastrous foreign policy, it seems like our old pal is always there to warily back us. Ultimately I conceptualize Great Britain as a slightly wiser, minimally less contentious, older brother.

So what is the path our elder sibling is blazing for us to follow? They are putting thought and government funds into considering a "Robot Bill of Rights". What does that mean, exactly? Does it refer to the objectionable pattern of complacency in the face of global terror that their citizenry shares with ours? No... take this one literally. They are sincerely imagining a day when our mechanical helpmeets rise up and demand their liberties. No more government opression on the assembly line! R2D2 and C3PO are all grown up. And they want what's coming to them, as fellow inhabitants of the kingdom.

I... am... not... kidding. Speculation about what might happen as robots become able to "reproduce, improve themselves or develop artificial intelligence" has led to this conclusion... that robots may demand their rights. This is the result of a series of "scans" (summary papers) from the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre. The specific paper, titled "Utopian Dream or the Rise of the Machines?", envisions the very real possibility of having to confront this issue in the next two to five decades. Robotic development will create a new class of "digital citizens", with the accompanying rights to healthcare and proper housing. Of course, as the study points out, with these rights will come responsibilities... such as an obligation to vote, pay taxes, and serve compulsory military service.

If we weren't squarely mired in the deep and dark days of December, I might suspect this is all some sort of ridiculous April Fool's Joke. What bunch of skittles-and-coffee-consuming, Star Trek-watchin', pocket protector-wearin' nerds could come up with something like this? Just how much Heavy Metal magazine-reading does one have had to have done in their childhood to consider this a serious possibility? And what kind of government accounting office stamps their approval on this kind of research? I can almost hear the bleating of the Conservative Right if this kind of activity crosses the Atlantic and infects our own taxpayer-funded think tanks.

But perhaps we do well to drop the skepticism for a moment, and consider the merits of the argument. If we develop an authentically humanlike intelligence, will we have a corresponding duty to recognize its fair claim to the "natural rights of man"? We will be creating robots in our own image... and shall we not accord the same privileges that we demand for ourselves? If you are a God-faring man/woman, do you believe that the Lord has extended any basic rights to humans? I guess that we'd have to consider the function that humans, and robots as an extension, were "created for" in the first place. If we vest robots with freewill, we'd almost have to come up with a structure of morality for them... and I don't see the point in reinventing the wheel. And I think the same thing would apply for those among us who are purely secular. If our own ideas of social organization are good enough for us, shouldn't the same apply to our inventions? If we intend to keep them solely as servants, perhaps we should draw up short of giving them human capabilities.


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