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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.

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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.

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