As I sit down to write this, I recently went through the process of wrestling my dog into the shower to lather, rinse, repeat him and, in doing so, had to deal with the amazing unintended benefit of a drain clogged with fur. Almost immediately after unplugging that little mess, I had to take a hard look at my pet and wonder how much better he would be as a fur-covered Roomba with a pair of googly-eyes glued to it.
Think about it. I wouldn't have to clean him and, in fact, he would instead clean my floor while still maintaining an above-average cuddly quotient. Rechargeable batteries are cheaper than kibble and no one's ever had to say "Look out for Roomba poop!" to guests walking in their backyard. No one sane anyway.
Crazy idea right? Except robotic dogs are already a thing. And I'm not talking about those annoying, blank-faced, yapping abominations brainlessly wandering within Radio Shack bric-a-brac pens. Nope, I'm talking about honest-to-Asimov robotic dogs like Boston Dynamics incredibly unimaginatively named "Spot". Personally I would have named it "Dogstructor" but I've been told I have considerable emotional imbalances thanks to a childhood consisting of a steady stream of Transformers and sugar, so take my suggestions with a grain of salt. "Spot" is smart enough to balance itself on uneven terrain and even keep itself from being kicked over. Pretty impressive stuff. Meanwhile, in Japan they're working on implementing robotic nurses and news anchors, one of which is so advanced it's already started lying about its experiences in war zones.
Where does this end?
I'm here to tell you that it ends in the total annihilation of the human race and life as we know it. Or possibly neither of those things. But probably at least one of them. As the unstoppable snowball of technological advancement rolls on we're going to see more and more integration of robots into our every day life. To most this is probably an obvious statement but what isn't so obvious to most is the impact this is going to have on us culturally. Sure, there's the concern over jobs being replaced by automatons but that's already happened in countless fields and it can only make our lives better as it results in long-term reduction of costs and threat to human life. Sure, the firemen of New York calendars will become far less hunky but the reduced risk balances that out. Humans are excellent at finding things to do and as some jobs disappear, new jobs will arise to take their place.
Nope, that's small potatoes compared to what is really going to rock our world: when do robots get the vote? And if that didn't just blow your mind it really should. If you suspect you'll live another three decades or so you can almost certainly be sure you'll see that question come up. After all, experts tend to estimate an explosion of artificial intelligence around 2040. Or maybe 2100. Whatever. It's all estimates. Rest assured, however, that the question will come up and it's going to cause a cultural storm that will be the women's suffrage, civil rights and gay marriage debates all rolled into one.
Hope you've been paying attention because this will affect your final grade.
Are you okay with robots getting married?
Are you okay with a human being in a long-term, sexual relationship with a robot?
A robo-sexual mixed couple adopting a child?
Two robotic parents adopting a human child?
If these questions sound like the strange ramblings of a frustrated Terminator-Sarah Connor slash fiction writer then you're being naive. On the other hand, if these questions sound intriguingly erotic to you, I can provide some links to my other writings that Universal Studios and James Cameron have been aggressively attempting to censor [links removed by request of 990WBOB.com management]. Either way, they're questions that are going to be foremost in the news and our lives as robots become so sophisticated as to be considered sentient.
You remember that estimate of an AI explosion between 2040 and 2100 I mentioned before? Yeah, that wasn't the emergence of AI, it was the point when AI would be able to start designing itself. We're on course to potentially have artificial intelligence even before that happens. Thinking, feeling computers and robots are essentially an inevitability. A terrifying, awesome, awesomely terrifying inevitability that is going to force us to think about those questions I listed. Paradoxically, that emergence of AI is going to trigger its own debate about itself. Yup, the existence of AI will beg the question of whether or not that AI is AI. And it's a valid question. We, as human beings, don't have a way to test for sentience. Why would we? Human intelligence is unique on our planet and nothing comes close to the sophistication of our minds. Sure, apes can stack boxes and dolphins engage in turf-based gang warfare but that only scratches the surface of human advances in boxology and similar activities. Hey, dolphins, call me when you have an entire musical culture based around your gang activities, okay?
So why would we have a test for sapience?
Our previous test has always been iron clad. Here you can take the test right now.
Are you human?
B) If you're taking this test choose A, dummy.
And that's the long and short of it. Humans are sentient and nothing else is. We've never needed more of a test than that because we've never experienced more than that. Naturally, like an injunction from James Cameron's lawyers, the lack of a need for a test hasn't stopped nerds from doing what nerds do. Historical super-nerd Alan Turing designed a test all the way back in 1950 to check machines for intelligence. The test basically tries to fool a human observer into being unable to distinguish interaction with a machine from interaction with another human being. Sort of like dealing with tech support over the phone. The test, however, has a lot of issues that make it virtually useless. Sort of like dealing with tech support over the phone. Though we still don't have computers sophisticated enough to pass the test, it wouldn't necessarily indicate the presence of AI anyway. We need a better test. Thankfully, we have other tests! Sadly, they're not necessarily better at uncovering AI either. Just different. In the end, it boils down to a major problem.
And that problem is; we don't know how to truly define something as sentient. Hoo boy, you think PETA is aggressive when it comes to animals? Animals can't even do math. Robots already can. As soon as that crowd figures out that there's a fight worth having regarding robot intellectual rights you can bet there's going to be protesters outside Nissan factories and the It's A Small World ride demanding the robots within be set free from their slavery. You see, people are going to have a really varied opinion on what it means to be truly 'alive' and worth consideration as a being. Just because a robot is assembled instead of being born means nothing in the face of intelligence emerging from them. What's worse, the robots are going to have their own opinions and they have the superhuman strength and superfast brains to back those opinions up. Imagine a foe that can review your entire internet search history, compile a psychological profile based on your porn preferences and then exploit those mental weaknesses in an attack upon you. All in the time it just took you to read that sentence. And we both know you're psychologically screwed up. You'll be easy pickings. The porn bears that out. Big time.
That's the fear after all, isn't it? Countless movies from Terminator to Terminator 2 have shown us futures where robots rise up and destroy or enslave us. Some films, like the Matrix trilogy, have even gone as far as inflicting 9 hours of Keanu Reeves on us just to try and get across how desperately serious this threat to humanity is. On the other hand, other stories have shown us the amazing benefit and joy a robot can bring to our lives like Rosie the robot from The Jetsons. However, even a series as innocent as The Jetsons had a keen awareness of the dangers a sentient robot could pose with the Hanna Barbera writers hi-lighting this in episodes like "Rip-Off Rosie" where Rosie becomes a kleptomaniac, "Robot's Revenge" where robots refuse to listen to George and trap him in his office with the threat of "disassembling" him, and "Rosie's Boyfriend" where, after her robotic boyfriend is turned off, Rosie goes on a berserk rampage culminating in a violent ray-gun shoot out with the police that hospitalizes Elroy for three subsequent episodes.
So is it inevitable that we will face open conflict with our robotic children?
The problem with predicting that is that it's incredibly hard to know how robotic intelligence will regard us and the situation. With their computational ability it's entirely possible they'll accept the inevitability of social reform since history has shown time and time again that society becomes increasingly accepting of new, peaceful and productive members. That is, after all, the very concept of the American melting pot. Except now that melting pot might include metal citizens. A smelting pot. Or maybe Skynet will just determine we're a wasteful, ignorant species and launch the nukes & unleash the Arnolds on us. What it really boils down to is the simple fact that we, as humans, have a history of violence, over-reaction and fear directed towards the new or unknown. We also have a history of reaching for the stars, learning from our mistakes and a sense of wonder & hope towards the future. It would stand to reason that a generation of sentient robots would be very much like a new generation of people and that they would have the benefit of seeing, learning from and expanding upon what came before them. So let's hope we've set a good example for them by that time they come around.
Until then...I'll be glueing googly eyes to my new, non-shedding, non-pooping pet. I'm considering the name Roombert. Email me with any better names you might think of.
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