Robots by your command

Fans of science fiction may be familiar with the 1978 television series, Battlestar Gallactica. The premise of the show is couched in the near extinction of “humans” from the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. Those responsible for the extinction are an army of super robots known as the Cylons. The ironic twist comes in the fact that the humans invented the Cylons.

While the idea of mechanical overlords is hardly new, audiences in the late 1970s probably thought the possibility of such dystopian tragedy was centuries in the future. Fast forward a couple of decades and that future looms too close for many onlookers. Chief among them is Christof Heyns, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Earlier this week, Heyns called for a global moratorium on the development and use of armed robots that can select and kill targets without human command.

“A decision to allow machines to be deployed to kill human beings worldwide — whatever weapons they use — deserves a collective pause,” he told the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

While Heyns acknowledged that no country currently has this technology (or will anytime soon), he is nonetheless concerned that its unchecked development could spell disaster for humanity. Heyns’ concerns are not without precedent. Throughout the course of human war-making several technological terrors have raised similar concern: the catapult; the crossbow; the Maxim gun (an early machine gun); aerial bombs; atomic bombs; unmanned aerial drones …

The world’s path through the last two items bears special consideration. We all know that the development of nuclear weapons propelled Western nations into a decades-long Cold War with the Soviet Bloc. This conflict arguably retarded the progress of civilization through its consumption of resources, splintering of the world community and polarization of interests.

Was a line in the sand necessary to halt the spread of Communism? Probably. But that line might not have trenched so deeply had it not been for the specter of nuclear cataclysm.

The terror du jour is, of course, aerial drones aka UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). While these devices don’t have an on-board pilot, they are directly flown by an attendant person. Even so, drones carry with them the mythos of impersonal destruction.

Self-determined robots are another matter altogether. Where a device controlled remotely is (for some) a disquieting idea, a robot charting its own course (and targets) wholly transforms the issue. In this regard, self-determining robots have the potential to become mechanized Frankenstein’s monsters. If we made them, we might not have the positive control that we should.

Robots pose a deeper existential question as well. Namely, they ask what it is to be sentient. Again, we find ourselves up against themes well-explored in science fiction. Whether it is the menacing throng of corporate killers in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, or the curious explorer, Commander Data, in Star Trek, robots evoke more questions than answers. The central question concerns the tipping point when a collection of sophisticated algorithms evolves into something more.

Ironically, this question is not a hypothetical “some day” possibility. Students — even some in middle school — are using simple programming environments to imbue primitive robots with the capacity to make autonomous decisions. Maybe these simple commands don’t equate with an impending mass extermination, but they certainly indicate that technology is advancing faster than we may have anticipated.

In this light, Heyns’ admonishment likely deserves a sustained consideration. As any Battlestar fan can tell you, the Cylons always precede their death-dealing with the same phrase, “By your command.”