Robot Ethics

One of the benefits of being affiliated with Rutgers University, if only part-time, is keeping a finger on the pulse of the future. No, I’m not on any admissions committees. Rather, this week, now available on YouTube, the university is advertising its robotics ethics program, geared mainly toward high school students. Perhaps reading Robopocalypse is not the best introduction to robot ethics, but it does raise a very serious issue—how do robots and ethics fit together? We haven’t even figured out human ethics yet! One of the principal concepts behind any ethical system is intention: did a person (or rarely, a higher animal) mean to do what it did? If an action has brought harm to a person, we need to know if it was intentional or not. In a world where artificial intelligence is just around the corner, we need to sort out how this will apply to mechanical minds.

Perhaps—if human minds are just soft computers—when robot minds are created they too will have a god concept. Neurologists and philosophers and theologians debate when the human concept of god originated and no consensus has emerged. It may be a by-product of “mind,” however we define that. If computers are eventually assigned true mind, will they also believe in God? According to Wilson’s fictional construction in Robopocalypse, Archon thinks “he” is “god.” Humans tend to project God out there somewhere. None of us has the power ascribed to God, and even if individuals claim otherwise, we don’t actually believe we are divine. Would a computer know?

Pressing just a little further on this, human ethics are always subject to corruption. It is clearly seen, almost advertised even, in politics. Not only do we find government leaders with their trousers down or with dirty money in their hands, we also find the same in ecclesiastical settings. Would robots become corrupt? Wilson calls the corrupting agent a virus, a real enough phenomenon. According to the Rutgers video, within two generations every home will have robots in it. The question is: what will their ethics be? I probably won’t be around to see it happen, but I do have a profound hope. My hope is that whoever fabricates robot ethics will be well aware of the failure our governments and religious institutions have made of the attempt.

Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!

Stobor and Dogs

Having spent seventeen hours on public transit of various sorts yesterday, I had plenty of time to read. My chosen book for this trip was Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse. In my recent reading spate of dystopia novels Wilson’s vision seems more likely than others and thus perhaps a bit scarier. An obvious reason for this is that much of our tax money goes toward military projects that are, naturally, secret. A large part of Robopocalypse deals with military robots gone feral. Well, not really feral. The robots are controlled by a mastermind computer virus. In the first chapter this robot overlord declares to its creator, “I am your god.”

That statement is probably, metaphorically, true already. We live in a world where culture would change irrevocably without our current technology. Without it even fewer people would be reading the words I daily post here. Without it industry would shift into reverse back to the days of Thomas Edison or Eli Whitney. Present-day culture would be unrecognizable. Although not the best-written novel I’ve read, Wilson’s story does raise a salient issue—at some point the tool becomes the master of its user. For many years those who loudly proclaimed the superiority of Homo sapiens declared that we were the only tool-making animals. Subsequent observation has, of course, proven that to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, once knowledge of tools is acquired a trajectory is set. We lose a little bit of control.

Has technology replaced God? For some it clearly has. God is a symbol of comfort and meaning. As I watch thumbs busily texting away on planes, trains, automobiles—and especially in the middle of lectures—I realize that this altar of technology boasts many worshippers. There are very few scenarios where advanced technology is not present, like an omniscient being. Thankfully we have a few more years before Raymond Kurzweil’s artificial brain comes online. We should use those few remaining years to prepare ourselves for either an epiphany or an apocalypse. When the slaves become the masters, we are firmly in the territory of dystopia, at least from a human perspective.


Yesterday the long anticipated novel Robopocalypse was released. Although I seldom indulge in hardcover fiction, I headed to my local Borders to purchase a copy. Sadly, it seems, my local is cutting back on first-day releases because I walked out of the store empty handed but with a robotic Armageddon in my head. Last summer I became acquainted with Daniel H. Wilson’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising, but word on the street is that this novel is serious. Steven Spielberg purchased the movie rights even before the book was released. And the concept owes its existence to religion.

If it were not for human religious sensibilities, would the concept of an apocalyptic end have ever arisen? Probing into the ancient psychology that lead Zoroastrians to suppose an ultimate conflict was just down the theological road, it is clear that even a strong moral sense alone does not dictate ultimate dissolution. By personifying evil in the form of Angra Mainyu, Zarathustra gave a (divine) human face to wickedness, and thus opened the possibility of battling against it. Evil as an abstract, non-personified force might simply be accepted as part of the universe we inherited. By providing it with will and intention, however, Zoroastrians allowed for a natural human response. Fight or flight is hardwired into our brains, but would we have dared fight a foe that is immaterial, amorphous, and completely abstract?

The nature of the enemy has transformed itself many times over the ages. Wilson, a scientist working with robotics during his education, has taken a religious theme and placed it in the context of a godless world of cybernetics. I must use caution here, since I haven’t yet acquired a copy of the book, but it remains clear that it is the humanization of non-human entities that gives force and pathos to a final conflict. Jesus charging his white horse into a foul-smelling cloud lacks the same impact. Thus mythologies are born. Mythologies that people live by and for which they frequently die. I do hope it all holds off until I can get a copy of Robopocalypse to read. Better yet, the end won’t come until after the movie is released.