Workshop on Societal Impacts of Autonomous Technologies

A full-day workshop will deal with ethical and social dimensions of autonomous technologies during the IEEE International Conference on Prognostics and Health Management (June 20-22, 2016, at Carlton University, Ottawa, Canada). The workshop is scheduled for Monday, June 20, followed by a panel discussion on June 21. Submission deadline for abstracts is April 25.

As the Call for Papers says: „First in the series, this Workshop is intended to bring together researchers, practitioners, and agencies involved in areas related to autonomous technologies and their impact on society. The proposed Workshop will allow for the identification of the type of autonomous systems that require further attention in terms of their effect in impacting humanity and discussion on their societal impact in both positive and negative ways. Emphasis will be placed not only on technology and public policy issues but also on environmental, cultural, structural, political, and socio-economic factors.“

Future of Human Autonomy

A very inspiring conference at Evangelische Akademie Loccum discussed the challenge of increasingly intelligent machines for human autonomy on March 18/19. The title of the conference was „Wenn Maschinen für Menschen entscheiden“ and it was organized by the Arbeitskreis für Theologische Wirtschafts- und Technikethik (ATWT) together with the Akademie. About 30 participants entered into an intense exchange of ideas that certainly will bear some surprising fruit in the long run. As a more immediate consequence it helped me clarify my own position which, as a sign of appreciation to the organizers Marcus Schaper and Veronika Drews-Galle as well as to all participants, I’d like to summarize here, fitting to the short text format of this blog.

At the first Civilian European Land-robot Trial (C-Elrob), 2007, Ticino, Switzerland (Foto: H.-A. Marsiske)

Witnessing the evolution of robots and artificial intelligence for nearly 20 years now, I am more than ever convinced that this development may finally result in artificial beings that rank equally to human beings and may even surpass them in their cognitive abilities. As long as we have no clear proof to the contrary, we should therefore regard the robots that we build today as the very early stage of a future sentient life form and treat them appropriately. If humanity decides to spread to outer space and settle the solar system, robots will certainly be our partners there, helping us to survive in a hostile environment, caring for the necessities of life like air, water, food. Why not ascribe the same role to robots on Earth? They could care for the necessities of life for all of us, thus liberating human labor to become a means of artistic expression, personal development, or just fun again, as it was in the past. Robotics will inevitably become a social technology that needs to be integrated into human society. And the time to think about the place that these artificial beings should occupy, is now, since we already design the technological pathways that will finally lead to these beings.

Perhaps the most important requirement for the development of artificial intelligence is openness. The best and most robust solutions will result from a selection process in which as much ideas as possible can compete with each other. That is one of the most important lessons that I learned from RoboCup, the annual robot competition where the participating teams compete to win the tournament but exchange their knowledge and software codes afterwards so that everyone can draw on the success and build on the reached level. I don’t see any alternative to this approach of radical open source. Our future artificial companions should be the result of the mental input from as many humans as possible, and their benefits should likewise be enjoyed by as many humans as possible.

It’s the Arms that kill

The European network Church and Peace has released a Statement concerning increasing arms trade and military intervention, expressing concerns about a dramatic increase in the volume of international transfers of major weapons in recent years. „Arms exports play a significant role in intensifying and perpetuating violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world“, the statement says. „In light of an all-time global high number of people seeking refuge from armed conflict, it is crucial to end the arms trade.“

I’d like to take this opportunity to address a popular misconception, saying that it is not the weapon that kills but the human. The former German minister of defence Thomas de Maizière even once declared weapons to be „ethically neutral“.

The prospect of autonomous killer robots gives a new perspective to this question: No doubt, such machines would be weapons that kill by themselves, with humans only giving the general commands. You may then ask for the difference to tele-operated drones which get their commands to release a weapon by the same communication channels as human soldiers. So isn’t it really the drone that kills, ordered to do so by a human? And you may ask the same question concerning firearms: Isn’t it the gun that kills, commanded by a human by showing the direction where to shoot and moving the index finger? Without the gun the human would be extremely limited in his ability to kill.

Using a knife, a sword, or bow and arrow, it may reasonably be argued that it’s the human that kills, since he is still utilizing the forces of his own body. But with firearms you are commanding external forces. It’s the arms that kill. Tools with the only purpose of destroying and killing can’t be considered as ethically neutral. If you want peace on Earth, you need to limit the number of firearms, stop their production and trade. Though not a member of any church myself, I therefore fully support the statement of Church and Peace.