Will Robots Save Us or Enslave Us?

Sounds like the lead-in to a new Hollywood movie. Like most computer people, I’m fascinated with the ability to program machines to do ‘work’ for us. The modern industrial factory could not compete with lower labor costs from oversees if not for the ability of robots who once programmed will work 24/7 without a break, sick day, or vacation. While it is true that those robots replaced the jobs of real people, it has always been argued that those people can be retrained and take new jobs in other areas. For example, some would argue that without automation, it would require more crew members to fly today’s large aircraft. Furthermore, the ‘robots’ can fly more efficiently saving fuel and time and respond to most situations faster than a human can. In fact, loss of the electrical systems on an airplane can lead to a disaster. Some of this technology is being added to automobiles to improve fuel efficiency as well as to prevent accidents.

Robots have also helped our military to enter areas that may have mines, booby traps, and enemy troops without risking lives. More recently, robot planes, drones, fly over enemy territory to locate enemy positions and to track their movements. The success of these robots led to the use of robots by police departments to assist in defusing suspicious packages by bomb squads, and even by fire departments to search for trapped survivors in a burning building.

Recently robots have been used to monitor traffic, identify traffic violations and automatically issue tickets based on the reading of the automobile’s license plate numbers. Even simple stop light cameras are a simplistic form of robot that is replacing the cop on the street or perhaps is freeing up their time to pursue more serious crimes (at least we could hope).

On the surface none of these technologies using autonomous robots or even human guided robots were initially seen as a problem. In fact, most were developed to help save lives and have performed well in that capacity. But like any technology, whatever mankind can create for good can be distorted (perverted) for bad.

Recent stories of how red light cameras were set up with shortened caution (yellow) lights just to increase the revenues needed to pay for the cameras has caused some communities to force their removal. The use of drone planes that are successfully used to monitor enemy movement is also being used by the police to find and track criminals, but the people fear they can also be used to spy on them. Some people say that if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry. However, it is the uncomfortable feeling of being watched without your knowledge that makes people’s spine tingle. Have someone sit and watch you do your normal job every day and most people would react poorly to that level of scrutiny.

To add on top of those concerns, the public recently learned that the NSA is monitoring all calls, not just the calls identified as belonging to criminals or potential criminals through the use of court issued warrants. Yes, the good part is that they are trying to identify terrorist activity before they act, but at the same time, most people again don’t like the idea of their phone calls being potentially monitored. The same can be said of monitoring email contents by providers who claim they are only doing it to provide more directed advertising based on that content. But who is really to know? Even the GPS in your phone has been shown to track your every movement and that data could be stored for years. Have you ever seen a police car along with highway with no one in it? Perhaps it is sitting there with its camera recording all of the license plates of cars passing by. Of course, it might be a good thing to identify the car of a criminal or locate a stolen car or even a silver alert vehicle. However, again people get that feeling that someone they do not know is always watching what they are doing and where they are going.

The use of cameras in stores, mall, subways, cities, etc. has increased over the last several years. But how effective is it? Images from cameras during the Boston Marathon bombing were insufficient to identify the bombers. The failure to identify the real bombers leads the rest of us to worry about false positives, identifying innocent people because they look a little like the criminal.

I suppose it all depends on how much relevance is given to these robots. After all, machines are not as good at determining the difference between the letter and the intent of the law. Take for example the stop light cameras. Do you program the cameras to record images of every car that goes through the red light even if the red light just changed a tenth of a second ago? What about two tenths of a second? Three? Similarly, for identifying speeders, how much over the speed limit warrants a ticket, 1 MPH, 2 MPH, 5 MPH, more? Does that answer make a difference if the speed limit is 20 MPH or 40 MPH or 65 MPH?

Actually researchers are currently looking into ways to program robots to interpret the intent of the law. Some purists say that anything that violates the law should be ticketed by the robots and let the courts decide. But would that put a huge burden on the already overloaded court system? Perhaps more open to interpretation is identifying erratic drivers. You know, the ones who weave from one lane to another just to pass a few cars while putting everyone else at risk. Are they in a hurry or just drunk? Does it matter? Will it identify the motorcyclist going down the freeway pulling a wheelie? Or how about that same motorcyclist squeezing between cars stopped at a red light just to get to the front of the line for when the light changes to green? How about those drivers who just don’t seem to like any shade of green and wait 5 seconds before they go at a light? Or how about the drivers making right hand turns from the left hand lane? Should they be ticketed? Can car-based biometrics along with GPS help identify drivers who are texting while they drive? What about the abuse of helicopters flying in circles around a development looking for criminals waking everyone up with their rotor noise and their blinding search lights shining through your bedroom windows in the middle of the night? (Or was that the alien abductors?) Will your ‘smart’ phone soon be monitoring everything you eat and do and report it to your doctor or your insurance carrier? If you had a bad night of sleep or if you just had an argument or received bad news, will your car refuse to start?

I could go on and on. But the point is this I suppose, when technology is used to work in dangerous areas to protect humans from entering those area or when the technology is used to provide unbiased law enforcement, most people will accept it. However, if the technology appears intrusive, is being used for hunting expeditions, not to solve a specific crime, or is viewed as being unfairly biased in any way, many people will reject it. Unfortunately for robots, the world is not black or white, but many shades of grey which for now they cannot interpret. These shades of grey will leave open the question of whether robots are good or bad as a topic for the movies for years to come.

C’ya next time.


By sharepointmike Posted in Opinion

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