Friday, March 28, 2008

Robots and Society

Robots and Society

The application of rapidly advancing fields of software and hardware engineering and biotechnology to recreate life or intelligence raises ethical and social issues. There is an ethical responsibility on the part of the creator to ensure that the robot or virtual pet causes no harm. There is also the impact of new technology on society. On the one hand, replacing people with robots may reduce labour costs and contribute to unemployment in society, but new jobs in the information technology industry are created.

Ethical Implications

Robots appeared in fiction as early as 1917, and by the 1920s writers were already depicting the robot as a mechanical worker or servant that could be either an aid or a menace to humanity. The word robot was first used in the 1921 play R U R (Rossum's Universal Robots), by Czech writer, Karel Capek. Remember that in Mary Shelley's novel Dr Frankenstein was so terrified of his creation that he ran away, leaving the 'monster' to fend for himself, with nobody to care for him and teach him. The creation carried out a terrible plan of revenge on its maker. The message in this is a question of ethics. If we start making creatures that are alive and intelligent, then we have to start thinking about how we will treat them, or suffer the consequences.

Three Laws of Robotics:

In I, Robot Isaac Asimov discussed the behaviour and thoughts of robots and devised Three Laws of Robotics. A robot:

  1. may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.
  2. must obey orders given to him by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Asimov, 1950: 8).
Social Implications

Since the introduction of automation in industry (the first major automation was achieved on weaving looms, and its opponents were called luddites) there has been an understandable fear of the introduction of technology. Automated looms were designed to do the same job as the weavers. Thousands of workers lost their jobs when these machines were introduced. More recently the introduction (from 1980) of automated tellers has displaced thousands of jobs in the banking industry.

Labour-intensive heavy industries were quick to adopt robotic technologies in the interests of perceived efficiencies, safety and economy. Robots can work round the clock, are easier to repair, don't get sick and don't require staff amenities. Replacing people with robots was seen as a way of reducing labour costs, workers' compensation and union influence. The replacement of people by automated systems contributes to unemployment in society, especially for the most disadvantaged group - unskilled workers - which can result in long-term unemployment.

Robots have also created new jobs directly and can create wealth, leading to the development of new industries and jobs.

Society will soon face a crossroads. Advancing technology has already enabled us to glimpse into the inner workings of the brain. What will we do with this knowledge when it allows us to control and to duplicate the very processes that give birth to the mind How will people respond to intelligent robots when they become as cheap and pervasive as modern-day household appliances? How should these technologies be best applied to serve humanity?

There is no doubt that this and other new technologies will have far-reaching - even revolutionary - impact on the way we live our everyday lives. Intelligent agents to maximize work productivity, expert systems to analyze massive amounts of data, and household robots to complete tasks and provide companionship and interaction-these are but a few of the potential applications that are already invading the marketplace. Decreasing costs and industry competition will spur the onset of an era in which our digital counterparts hold increasing importance in our everyday lives.

These changes are already happening. The face of this change will undergo even more rapid transformation in the years to come. Today humanity goes unchallenged in its dominance across the face of the planet. But when the very objects around us convey the appearance of a seeming intelligence, our perception of ourselves and interaction with others will undergo a qualitative shift that will transform society as we know it.

The educational system will be one of the greatest initial beneficiaries of these changes. Near-unlimited access to information already comes in the form of the internet. The maturation of natural language processing, coupled with search engine databases and an intuitive, low-cost interface will allow this information to be more readily distributed to society. The quality of the learning experience will be greatly enhanced by this ubiquitous intelligence: a stimulating, richly interactive environment develops neural learning pathways at an accelerated rate.

Commerce and industry - already reliant upon the internet - will fund new technologies out of a necessity driven by fierce competition in the global marketplace. Self-repairing systems and artificial immune systems will protect critical data servers. Intelligent agents will guide financial transactions. Expert systems will monitor stock market conditions.

The world of the future is one dependent upon advances in technology. Though artificial intelligence presents the potential for opposition, e.g. the de Garis artilect war, more likely centers for conflict include biotechnology and genetic engineering. No technology exists in a vacuum. The more conceivable probability is that some convergence of these technologies will provoke discord. Is the robot the future of man, or the man of the future? The destinies of the two are inextricably linked.

by Luke_mani at



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