The drive towards ethical AI and responsible robots has begun

The drive towards ethical AI and responsible robots has begun
Robots and AI can be safe, if we make them that way. Credit: Shutterstock

Roboticist Sabine Hauert, from the Britain's University of Bristol, wrote in Nature earlier this year:

My colleagues and I spend dinner parties explaining that we are not evil […]

People are worried, she said.

They hear a mostly one-sided discussion that leaves them worried that robots will take their jobs, fearful that AI poses an existential threat, and wondering whether laws should be passed to keep hypothetical technology 'under control'.

These fears are not helped by a continuing epidemic of artificial intelligence (AI) and robophobic screenplays emanating from Hollywood.

It is hard to give examples of recent mainstream films with robots and AIs in them that are not infected with AI-phobic (Transcendence, Eagle Eye) or robophobic (Oblivion, any of the Robocop movies, Ex Machina) scenes.

The indie caper picture Robot and Frank and the relatively mild dumping of the human by the AI in Her, who then runs off to hang out with cooler Alan Watts-based superintelligences, are the only ones coming to mind that do not succumb to the prevailing moods of AI panic and robophobia.

Robots and AIs do make good cinematic villains. However, in reality no one has much clue how to make a "want" or "feel" anything in a phenomenologically credible way as yet; let alone how to make them sociopaths hell bent on world domination and the extermination of Homo sapiens.

They are more likely to become innocently dangerous idiot savants than malevolent overloads seeking to get psychotic kicks by making humans "bend the knee".

Rule-driven robots play a mean game of chess but feel nothing about winning or losing. They just pick moves that optimise a mathematical value function. Humans associate intelligence with desire but "desire" as formally modelled in the rulebook of a Turing machine is a very different thing from the combustive forces of fury, jealousy and "star-crossed love" that drive humans.

Responsible robots

The drive towards ethical AI and responsible robots has begun
We come in peace, if we’re designed that way. Credit: Shutterstock

Two new AI and robotics nonprofits launched over the weekend. In different ways, both are responses to public concerns about the safety of AI and robotics.

The first is The Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR), which wants to "promote responsibility for the robots embedded in our society".

The FRR is headed by Noel Sharkey and various robotics experts. It aims to engage policymakers, create interdisciplinary teams of robotic, legal, ethical and societal scholars, work to explore what it means to be "responsible" as robotics researchers and designers, run workshops and engage the public.

Sharkey, who is known for his activism with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, is concerned that "we are rushing headlong into the robotics revolution" without giving enough policy thought to the social problems that might arise.

He says governments are looking to robotics as a "powerful new economic driver" but "only lip service is being paid to a long list of potential societal hazards".

New technologies could cause mass unemployment or there might be an acceleration of social inequality caused by robots and automation leading to a society divided between robot-owners (living in gated communities) and a robot-less underclass (struggling on a brown burnt Earth) such as was depicted in Elysium .

The FRR wants to ensure that the public have confidence in robotics research and that robots will be developed with due regard for their human rights and freedom of choice.

AI for everyone

Open AI is backed by Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and various technology entrepreneurs.

The drive towards ethical AI and responsible robots has begun
Films like RoboCop entrench fear of robots and artificial intelligence. Credit: Orion Pictures

Their focus is more on research and on making advanced AI freely available. They seek to develop innovations in "deep learning" a technique where rather than "hand-code a new algorithm for each problem, you design architectures that can twist themselves into a wide range of algorithms based on the data you feed them".

They aim to "advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return".

When "human-level AI" arrives, Open AI feels that it is important that there be "a leading research institution which can prioritize a good outcome for all over its own self-interest".

They say "our researchers will be strongly encouraged to publish their work, whether as papers, blog posts, or code, and our patents (if any) will be shared with the world".

Open AI's backers have committed a billion dollars in funding though they expect to "only spend a tiny fraction of this in the next few years."

Open AI is mainly about open access to advanced AI thus reducing the risk of a world of AI haves and have nots. This is a good idea. If the team can keep competitive and advanced AI open source this should reduce the risk of people being excluded from advanced AI for financial reasons.

The Foundation for Responsible Robotics has a broader agenda of policy engagement and raising professional and public awareness of robot ethics issues. Again, this is a worthwhile endeavour. AI and robotics researchers tend to be hard scientists unused to ethical debate.

Scientists need to step out of the empirical and into the normative. As trusted thought leaders of the citizenry, they should cross the line between "is" and "ought" and participate in policy debate.

Hopefully both these groups will help provide cures for the current epidemics of AI panic and robophobia.

Explore further

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Dec 16, 2015
An even greater ethical dilemma will occur when/if we map out the biology behind consciousness and emotion and replicate it in AI. At such a point I see no reason that I will not to value AI on the same level as humans. Empathy is indifferent to whether or not the underlying mechanism is a biological machine or not--it seems to me that it is only concerned only with the emergent behavior. And there is also the question of whether or not we even need to elucidate and replicate that biology in order to attribute that value. If the "simulation" is near perfect, is the fact that it is a simulation even relevant to our purely emotional empathy towards other living beings?

This is a tough question for many people because it violates the belief that there is some "special sauce" in conscious living beings that is greater than the physical. My hope is that with AI they may see both the insanity of their hubris, and the beauty and possibility of the reality they've demoted.

Dec 16, 2015
I wouldn't call Transcendence ai-phobic. Many of the characters were ai-phobic, but the AI was shown to be benevolent to the last, just trying to survive. Even the partial hive-mind style control it gains over the humans in its utopia is given a frank dose of skepticism, but there's a convincing humanist factor in the way and reason the people involved chose to join him. I was pleasantly surprised by how human it was willing to portray a (partially) alien intelligence.

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