Another step down familiar roads


There’s a sardonic t-shirt for sale online that features a big U.S. flag on the chest. The surrounding text reads, “Made in America… by Robots.” At this point in history it’s difficult to know whether the shirt is more prescient or parody. A recent press release by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), suggests the former.

For the uninitiated, DARPA, is the U.S. military’s technological research wing. The agency website says DARPA “was established in 1958 to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.”

In the press release, DARPA provides a pair of short video clips highlighting its partnership with Boston Dynamics and its ATLAS Robotics program. The videos are an odd combination of amazing, scary and silly.

They’re amazing because these anthropomorphic forms are shown climbing obstacles, using tools, running and doing all manner of physical tasks. They’re scary because the best of the lot looks like a close cousin of the Cylons from Battlestar Gallactica. Knowing the sense of humor many of my engineer buddies have, this can’t have been an accident.

They’re silly because DARPA has set all the robot leaping and grabbing footage to a techno-beat soundtrack reminiscent of rave parties. It was as if Herbie Hancock’s 1984 music video, Rockit, had babies. This too, could have been no accident.

The images are almost hypnotic — a feature amplified by the pulsing music. The novelty is trance-inducing, but the implications are a bit jarring. While the specter of robot overlords doesn’t loom on any realist’s horizon, expansion into heretofore exclusively human realms is inevitable.

Some of these new uses would be wonderfully transformative. Imagine not just drone-facilitated tasks, but actual autonomous (or nearly so) bomb-diffusion, firefighting, disaster assistance and rescue functions. For that matter, the vaunted Roomba house vacuum might morph into yard mowing, construction work, car washing or any of a thousand other labor-intensive jobs. We already see the impact in automobile manufacturing that even a nascent robotic workforce has made.

Of course none of these thoughts is original. The idea of mechanized helpers and servants has been popular for many decades. All of their quietly compliant assistance is well and good until their programming has a little unanticipated hiccup that sets them on a different, more intuitive and semi-sentient path.

This notion, too has been well-explored. Of course there’s the Terminator, which is little more than a re-interrogation of the basic Frankenstein and friends plot. More interestingly there’s Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s EPICAC, a lovelorn computer that kills itself when it discovers it can’t have a human girlfriend.

EPICAC was Vonnegut’s not so subtle parody of the first computer, a behemoth called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). ENIAC like the fictional EPICAC had military developers. ENIAC’s original purpose was to make fast and accurate artillery calculations, a job that was previously done with slide rules and paper.

Perhaps the most concerning future development is not that robots would come to rule us, but that they might get so technologically sophisticated that no humans (at least those from developed, modern economies) would ever have to directly fight another war. Therein lies the next well-trodden ethical conundrum. If we never actually had to get our hands dirty, might that neutralize the moral consequence of war? If war came to mean that “our” autonomous robots were sent to kill “your” humans, that places things in a whole new light. It makes a very complicated statement about our level of moral investment in the enterprise.

Of course a version of this same basic premise is in play right now as we use flesh and blood “automatons” in the third world to make our running shoes and televisions. As with the robot soldiers, if we don’t have to get our hands dirty or see the suffering directly, we find the glow of the television sufficient to mask the real cost.