Do Vacuum Cleaners Dream Of Electric Dust Bunnies?

October 8, 2010

The year is 2010. That in itself isn’t big news. According to my calendar, which I double-checked just to be sure, it’s been 2010 for several months now. And that is an arbitrary number, since according to the Islamic calendar it’s 1431, and according to the Jewish calendar it’s 5771, and according to the the Chinese calendar it’s, well, nobody knows, but for many of us the year is 2010 according to the Western calendar that was adopted some time ago so that, if George Washington and Abraham Lincoln ever come back to life, they’ll never be able to figure out when their birthday is. The important thing is that several things that science fiction led me to believe would be in place by 2010 haven’t happened. I’ve gotten used to the fact that we don’t have flying cars or moon bases, and the aliens don’t seem to be in any hurry to contact us, possibly because they’ve been put off by numerous jokes about trailer parks in Indiana and anal probing. But would it be too much to ask for cool robots? When I was a kid I read a magazine article about a guy who’d built a robot that would vacuum his den for him, which I thought was really cool. I thought it was so cool I told my mother that, someday soon, we’d have robots that vacuum the den and put dishes in the dishwasher, and she reminded me of that fact every time I complained about having to vacuum the den or put dishes in the dishwasher. Clearly I was premature in my assumption but, hey, if some amateur could build a vacuuming robot in his basement it seemed reasonable that they’d be available soon. And there are now vacuuming robots, although, as with any new technology, if you buy one you’ll spend at least as much time figuring out how to operate it as you would building one from scratch in your basement, and eventually you’ll hammer it to pieces which you’ll then use your old vacuum cleaner to clean up.

What really got me thinking about this, though, is that I heard recently that some scientists have now built a robot that can use a bow and arrow. Admittedly this seems about as useful as C-3PO’s ability to be really annoying in more than six million different forms of communication. Most robots are designed to do tasks that are too tedious or too dangerous for humans to do, such as welding car parts or defusing bombs or handling fast food. I’ve been to a few renaissance fairs and I don’t remember hearing a single archer wishing to be replaced by a robot. But giving a robot the ability to use a weapon, even a primitive one like a bow and arrow, seems like the first step on a very slippery slope, at least if science fiction is to be believed. Sure, occasionally you meet a nice robot—Robby from Forbidden Planet, or Commander Data—but making a robot that can use a bow and arrow just seems like the first step toward the Terminator and Cylons. If we’re going to start teaching robots to use weapons I think it’s important that we also teach them Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. They are: One, a robot may not, through action or inaction, cause harm to a human being, Two, a robot may not allow harm to come to itself unless this conflicts with rule one, and Three, if you drop a spark plug on the floor and it’s been there less than five seconds you can still use it. Yes, a robot does have to have some form of rudimentary consciousness to be able to understand these laws, and I realize that not even most politicians have that yet, but technology is advancing all the time. Science fiction may not always have the best track record chronologically speaking, maybe because we keep changing calendars, but many things predicted by science fiction have become reality. Genuine artificial intelligence could be just around the corner, and even if the robots of the future are nice they’ll still raise philosophical questions that make today’s civil rights debates look straightforward. They’ll raise questions like, do androids dream of electric sheep and, if so, who let Philip K. Dick program them? And, is it ethical to stand just beyond the length of the power cord and tell a robot that its mother was a typewriter? There’s also the frightening possibility that, in spite of Asimov’s laws, an unclear instruction or a dirty spark plug will cause massive robot insanity and humanity will be reduced to a small ragtag group of rebels hiding in a cave where no one’s ever used a vacuum cleaner.

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