Friday, June 8, 2012

Robots and the law

Last week's Economist as my previous blog indicated had a feature on robots and the law. The article only begins to touch the surface of the issue suggesting we need to be able to determine where responsibility lies when the wrong decision is made or when an accident happens.

The Economist as always is thoughtful but not expansive enough on this particular topic. What I did appreciate was that it drew attention to just how much autonomous equipment is beginning to emerge into society and we need to start thinking about the implications.

This segways beautifully into another blog post I have been thinking about. For my birthday this year I bought myself I Robot which I had never got around to reading. I have read lots of Arthur C Clarke and Assimov but not the Robot series. The biggest eye opener for me has been my reaction to the book. I last really binged on Sci Fi in the late 1990s just before I moved city to start work at a research centre and my PhD started coming together. Just as that ended I moved country and got married so it has been more than a decade since I buried myself in books by Assimov, Gibson and Stanley Robinson with his Mars series.

If you think back to the late 1990s we didn't have robots of any public kind, the internet was still just an online yellow pages and mechanical technologies had not changed much since the 1950s. Thus, Assimov's future still seemed like speculative future with the dates wrong. None of it really connected or disconnected anymore than it probably did when he wrote it.

Today that has changed. Digital technologies are now obviously developing much faster than mechanical / physical technologies which is in stark contrast to the Assimov world. He largely missed digital technologies altogether - projecting instead the world he saw; space flight and semi mechanical technologies (aka the robots). I have thus been surprised by how little I am enjoying I Robot. The world presented is based on assumptions that have diverged greatly from the real developments. It just proves how hard it is to think about the future.

In I Robot there are many kinds of robots the most profitable are produced by  U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men and all of which have positronic brains for decision making. Around us in the real world of 2012 there is an increasing variety of autonomous vehicles (Google's car most famously) and technologies of lots of shapes and sizes - mostly for military use at the moment. What this indicates is that perhaps it is time to widen our vision of what is happening in our world.

This is not to say that initiatives such as that by Seattle Pacific University which I fully support are not worthwhile. I am quite excited by: which is focused on Christianity and the digital society but readers of this blog will see that my itch is that we are at moment in time with so much happening we need multiple conversations and fora. We need to talk about this in our local churches and we need to talk about this in larger multi-country events.

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