Friday 6 March 2015

SMARTS update

I’m almost finished the book, but that doesn’t mean the story is finished with me. Doing SMARTS has changed everything I thought I knew about what intelligence is and who displays it. SMARTS introduced me to some truly strange and fascinating work by scientists who mimic in machines the way intelligence is expressed by everything from plants to slime molds to amoeba. First, I learned to stop thinking about intelligence as a little homunculus that squats only within a human brain, calculating every move. I began to see it as adaptive behavior, as as a kind of dance among bodies struggling to continue in an environment that isn’t very friendly.  No big leap then to see that smart robots, meaning robots that adapt to their environments, that move through them with the aid of sensors and processors programmed to learn, are  a lot like us, and to see that these smart robots are  getting smarter all the time. Some are under human control. Some, like predator drones, are under partial control, killing on human command but getting to the kill zone all by themselves. Some are as autonomous as a slime mold or a mimosa. And then there are the hybrids.

In short, we are populating the world with all kinds of smart machines and nobody is in charge.

Though there are thousands of computer scientists, engineers, philosophers, trying to make smarter robots, and thousands of companies scrambling to invent better ways to teach robots to learn, there is no government body, no ethical council, no body of law  about how we should treat what amounts to a new order of intelligent beings. Questions like this arise: if a weaponized drone acting autonomously kills someone, is it murder? If a humanized robot taking care of your ancient mother reaches out and chokes her for no good reason, who is responsible? Our notion of crime rests on the assumption that there must first be a criminal mind with intent to do harm. Our idea of machines is that they have no minds, and therefore cannot have intentions. And yet the whole smart enterprise unfolding in the world around us at terrifying speed is generating machines capable of intentional, surprising and original behavior.
One commentator refers to this change as a tidal wave—out there, huge and vast, not quite upon us, but possibly utterly devastating when it hits.  The Pew Research Center thinks some of us are worried, others not so much. The economic impact of smart robots interconnected to each other and using big data came up at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. Speakers expressed concern about a future in which human intellectual laborers will be replaced by robots imbued with ever- improving artificial intelligence. The Brookings Institute has been publishing a series on civilian robotics. In one paper, robotocist Heather Knight of Carnegie Mellon University writes about the beauty of the way humans quickly develop empathetic relationships with smart machines, treating some almost as if they are alive. She suggests this will drive us to develop law regarding the proper treatment of machines in the same way we enforce the proper treatment of animals.  Another paper,written by Ryan Calo, is called  “The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission.”  Calo, of University of Washington, argues that the US should create a national forum where the issues raised by the rise of intelligent machines can be addressed. For him, the point of this Commission would be to better drive robotics/artificial intelligence innovations so that America maintains its position at the leading edge of technology. And where is this leading edge, you ask. Calo has an answer.
 “Robots increasingly display emergent behavior, meaning behavior that is useful but cannot be anticipated in advance by operators,” he says.

Yet Calo wants this Commission to have no regulatory powers. 

Well I do.

To keep abreast of the arguments put forward by those in love with this smart future, check out robohub at

If you find any hearings, investigations, Congressional or Parliamentary committees trying to grapple with these technologies before they grapple with us, please let me know.
And please start asking questions I haven’t thought of.

1 comment:

  1. Have you thought of putting 'feedjit' on your blog .. its a gadget to see who is visiting you .. or rather where they are located globally... you can add the gizmo quite easily ... I think a lot of people are eagerly anticipating your new book ... and I am just really glad I found "Cloak of Green" which I am returning to the Mount Allison University library today ... I have ordered a copy through the local bookseller .... your work is really important ... thanks for all you have given [and no doubt put up with for your efforts] ... robohub doesn't appear to let me in ... I think its a understatement to say 'transhumanism' is getting away from us all very quickly .. probably I was most alerted a few years ago by finding .. why do these science guys all have those glassy eyed stares?