Legendary sci-fi novelist Isaac Asimov didn’t invent the concept of robots, but his Three Laws of Robotics have proven to be a popular way to address the potential threat of humanity’s artificial creations. Seven decades after Asimov introduced his Three Laws, the art of robotics hasn’t yet achieved its peak. But now, a scientist has created what may be the first non-military robot that was specifically built to break Asimov’s First Law: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
Via Fast Company, robot designer Alexander Reben spoke about his tabletop First Law robot, which he unveiled earlier this year. Somehow, we don’t think that Skynet will enlist this device in its eventual war on humanity. It’s just a simple machine that detects when a fingertip has been placed on its sensor. Once that happens, the robot will either stab the person with a needle or it will take no action at all. It’s not an automatic response, and it’s not really a decision either. But Reben argues that the randomness of the robot’s assault makes it unique.
“No one’s actually made a robot that was built to intentionally hurt and injure someone,” said Reben. “I wanted to make a robot that does this that actually exists…That was important to, to take it out of the thought experiment realm into reality, because once something exists in the world, you have to confront it. It becomes more urgent. You can’t just pontificate about it.”
The report did point out that robots have actually killed a handful of humans during industrial accidents. But it wasn’t as if those machines had a thought process or an artificial intelligence telling them to destroy their makers. They were simply tragic mistakes. Even Reben’s machine is pretty crude by the standards of modern robotics. It may strike randomly, but it doesn’t really think.
It may not be currently possible to create an autonomous robot that could actually decide whether to kill or spare humanity, but the idea that it could eventually be real is terrifying. But it’s not as if scientists are unaware of how dangerous it could be, and Reben appears to be trying to start a conversation about how to deal with that long before it becomes a reality. On his website, Reben added that “now that this class of robot exists, it will have to be confronted.”
While speaking with Fast Company, Reben elaborated on his hope that experts in ethics, engineering, law, and philosophy will eventually “come together…[and] solve some of these problems that no one of them can wrap their heads around or solve completely.” In theory, that could happen…it’s just not very likely. We don’t live in a world that easily handles these theoretical issues before they become actual problems. Asimov may have had the right idea about how to handle the issue of robotic ethics, but there’s no way to make sure that future inventors will follow his suggestions.
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Image: Alexander Reben