The Robots Are Coming – Part II


Some people really do think robots will take over unless world authorities move to define the rules that govern their creation. Scientists and robotics engineers are already selling intelligent machines cleverer than most people. Some single-task robots are already considerably better than ordinary human beings at reproducing consistent, accurate results in specific areas. Examples include chess programs that will defeat all but the cleverest masters, ping pong playing helibots can out-perform all but the top players; even the best surgeons already use robotic machines to carry out more delicate operations, where human error means life-threatening consequences. Indeed, many surgeons say that all operations will be carried out robotically in the not too distant future, because of the litigious nature of their patients.

Self diagnosis machines for the doctor’s waiting room that can accurately tell you exactly what’s wrong with you have been feasible for many years. GPs won’t give them the go ahead and hypochondriacs won’t trust them. However, the fact is they are far less likely to make a disastrous misdiagnosis than your average distracted GP. What is more, they have time to ask you all the right questions and won’t forget any, because you’ve had your ten minutes-worth.


People tend to think of ‘real’ robots as looking like us, in much the same way and for the same reasons that they consider life manifests itself in forms familiar to us in our everyday life or, at worst, in our nightmares. Claims by scientists that mould is a life form worth looking for are popularly deemed geekish gobbledegook. Expectations are that one day intelligent robots will exist and be indistinguishable from real human beings – true androids in the human cast – the Data syndrome. Star Trek was, of course, beaten to the draw by at least forty years by Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots and others but the underlying concept of intelligent robots that threaten takeover (e.g. Data’s brother) is there and won’t go away.

The idea that ‘real’ robots must look like humans is not unreasonable considering cultural teaching that human beings are superior to all other life forms on earth, a belief deep-rooted in the human psyche. The concept of humanoid robots does need to be revisited before time runs out and they become a feature of our daily lives.

More that 3,000 years ago the ancient world knew their nearest concept to a robot – a slave (what else?) – could not be allowed to retain the appearance of a free person. Slaves were branded where the brand could be seen (not just so that they could be identified if they ran away). They were treated as non-persons and their lives were at the disposal of their owners. Yes, people knew long ago that attractive (or even personable) slaves posed a threat to free men and women and (to adopt the modern jargon) to vulnerable people who trusted them with their care.

A recent ethics study in Great Britain came to the conclusion that robots must be made/created so as to be easily distinguishable from humans. The argument behind this is that human beings can and do form attachments to machines, so that a robotic android with human characteristics indistinguishable from those of a human might truly claim the affections of its owner, causing distress to others and psychological harm to the dependent user. It also concluded that robots should not be created to undertake human care tasks that might leave vulnerable people at risk. So what’s new?

Machines equipped with truly advanced Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), as opposed to single-task Artificial Intelligence (AI), will relatively soon be perfectly capable of designing and maintaining themselves. Their continuously evolving ideas of beauty, strength and moral values may not be the same as their originators’. Azimov’s set of three rules that basically will not allow robots to harm their creators will need to be laid down in a far more legalistic set of protocols and properly enacted in courts worldwide.

Will the robot designers (creators?) stop at producing machines or will they go for humanoid robots? I believe If they can, they will, unless someone stops them. Who is that someone and would they be right to do so?