KILLER ROBOTS AND NICE ONES!
PROFESSOR Noel Sharkey helped to set up the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots, and has been talking to the United Nations for years to try and stop the world’s armies using robots to kill people. We spoke to him to find out more about the dangers of military robots, as well as self-driving cars, robot childminders… and cheap robot vacuum cleaners. But it’s not all doom and gloom – robots are doing loads of good things, too!
Robots are doing a lot of jobs now, but which ones are you worried about?
Military robots are the most urgently scary ones. Not the remote-control ones, but the autonomous ones. The issue with them is that there’s no human control. Once they’ve been launched, they will travel without human supervision, track and select their own targets, and kill them without any human involvement. That’s a concern for me because you need a human in meaningful control of weapons to ensure that they hit the right targets and not civilians. They’re not humanoid robots armed with machine guns, like the Terminator. These are robot tanks, submarines, ships and fighter jets. But I’m not one of these people who are concerned with AI [artificial intelligence] taking over the world. I don’t see that. The problem with these robots is that they’re not intelligent.
When you talk to people about killer robots, do most people agree with you?
I support those who say that it’s just morally wrong to have a machine make the decision to take a human life. A very large number of people throughout the world agree with that. They might save some soldiers’ lives for a very short period of time, but it won’t give you an advantage when everyone else has them. Then you’re back to where you were, except in a worse position.
What worries do you have about robots affecting people’s everyday lives?
We at the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, which I co-direct, are concerned about many aspects of robotics, including the impact on jobs. AI is taking a lot of jobs – even journalists’ jobs. You’ve got these bots that go out and grab things from the internet and then a sub editor tidies it up. Some people are saying it doesn’t matter because it’s only low-level stuff; the thing is that journalists have to start with low-level stuff. You might start off with traffic news, but now where are you going to get the experience? I’m very concerned about jobs for people who are not so well educated, and rely on these jobs to support their families. One example is the burgermaking robot, and service robots generally. They can work much faster than humans and can work 24 hours a day. Within the next five to ten years, those jobs will be history. The other big concern is driving jobs. I don’t know about Britain, but there are 3.5 million of them in the United States. Driving lorries, buses, tractors… all those things are being automated. Within 20 years, all those jobs will have gone.
In other interviews, you seem quite negative about driverless cars.
I was talking about the negative issues, but I’m not negative about the future of autonomous cars. The big problem for me is the rush to do it. I don’t like the way Tesla have been pushing forward too quickly. Google have spent more than ten years on theirs and they haven’t released it yet. But the other problem is how can you possibly maintain attention in a world where you’re not doing anything? If you’re sitting there for five hours or whatever, nobody can keep attention for that long. It’s that handover from an emergency happening to you taking control. You’re not really concentrating on the speed of the car, you might not know where cars are around you, and suddenly you’re put in this position where you have to take over, and that’s where accidents happen. But I believe that in the future
they could be the safest possible thing. It would be really useful if all of the cars on the road are autonomous, and the roads have been specially designed to take them. Then all of the cars could communicate with each other. Usually, if there’s a sign saying that there’s fog and we recommend 40mph (64km/h), people ignore it and hammer past you at 80mph (129km/h). But now they’d all automatically slow down. Some people might not like it, but it’ll just save ridiculous numbers of lives.
You said recently that our human rights should include protection from robots and AI. What did you mean?
Here’s a good example: you cannot have your privacy taken away by a robot. Now that just seems like an obvious thing. But can your parents sign away your privacy to robots? The United Nations articles say that children have privacy, so much of what we’re talking about is already there, but it’s making sure it works with new technology. And what about freedom of movement? Your parents can keep you from going outside and harming yourself, but should a childminding robot be allowed to do it? Will it make decisions about other things, like saying you’re not allowed to eat sweets? A lot of people are talking about machines taking over the world and having all these big thoughts, but if you look after the little things like this, then the other ones don’t have the chance to happen anyway. So we need to get these rules set out now.
Are hackers one of the big worries when it comes to robots?
I don’t think hacking is being taken seriously enough. A lot of security people are saying that if you want to make sure your home is insecure, get an internet security device! There was that guy who hacked into a US battleship and waved the gun around. A Taliban guy was caught in the desert with a laptop, with all the footage from a US Predator surveillance drone on it. All he did was buy a bit of software from Sweden that was being sold to steal your neighbours’ television signals. It cost $40 [£32] and he was able to get all the footage from the drone! We’ve already seen cars being hacked in the United States. A Jeep was hacked and somebody was sat at a laptop working its steering and brakes. In America they’re worried about someone hacking into the Hoover Dam and opening it, killing 60,000 people without warning. Will we have the internet cut off eventually because hacking is so strong? We’ve no idea what the future will bring.
We’ve talked about problems with robots, but are there any types of robots that you really want in your home?
Goodness me, yes! Domestic equipment has really changed women’s lives and made it possible for them to go out and work. My grandmother’s life was really hard. She had 12 children and she had so much washing – and had to do it by hand. It’s still women who do most of that work, unfortunately. I have a robot vacuum cleaner that’s a very good robot but a useless vacuum cleaner! Once the dog’s started laying hairs on the carpet, it just chokes and can’t do anything. But the one I’ve got cost £100 – Dyson have one that’s £800 or something, but it’s a superduper machine and will really clean. There’s a robot in development at Berkeley [University of California] that searches around a room, finds laundry lying around on the floor, then picks it up and puts it in the washing machine. It even takes it out and puts it in the laundry room. You’d still have to iron it, but people are developing robot ironers. There’s also a great use of drones in Africa to monitor endangered species so that poachers don’t get them. In Singapore they have these beautiful robot swans [below] that are on a lake continuously monitoring water quality. I might sound negative a lot of the time, but that’s because people don’t want to hear about the good uses of robots! One of the National University of Singapore’s robotic swans. The team behind the swans say they “give scientists an advance warning on potential quality problems. As we make progress in the fields of robotic technology and artificial intelligence, we see our swans evolving into a group of intelligent robots that work together to effectively monitor our waters and help keep them clean”