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.

Nationality: Terrestrian

Yesterday I heard the wonderful song „Grenzen“ (Borders) on the radio, that touched me deeply. In the refrain German singer-songwriter Dota Kehr demands a new passport for herself, indicating her nationality as „inhabitant of Earth“. That reminds me on the idea of a Flag of Earth like the one you see above, which has been flown at the headquarters of the SETI League and many other places. Of course, there are other concepts, too, for a flag representing humanity as a whole. The final design has to be the result of a global debate, though, where every Earthling should have a vote. Tough task? Yeah, but certainly very well worth the effort.

Birds against Drones

The Dutch company Guard From Above is adding a new switch to the robot arms race, using trained birds of prey to intercept small UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). A video on their website shows a bald eagle catching a quadrocopter during an indoor test. As the Guardian reports, Dutch police seems interested in this approach while not excluding the flying net, demonstrated in Japan, or ray guns.

A Fresh Look at „RoboCop“

German spelling rules require a hyphen between science and fiction to make it Science-Fiction. What seems like an unremarkable line, turns out to be more akin to a demilitarized zone of public debate on robots. You better stay away from it. There are the visions of art and literature on the one side, serious science on the other. When both get too close the risk of mental discharge increases dramatically. It’s an area of danger and fear. An area of adventure and excitement.

I talk about it in more detail in my introduction to the screening of „RoboCop“ (Paul Verhoeven, USA 1987)

Sunday, February 21, 2016, 2:30 p.m. (14:30)

Metropolis, Kleine Theaterstraße 10, Hamburg


See you there,

Hans-Arthur Marsiske

Robotic Assistants for Persons with Dementia

In Artificial Intelligence, Vol. 230 (Jan 2016), Jesse Hoey, Tobias Schröder, and Areej Alhothali (University of Waterloo, Canada) present theoretical foundations of an artificial intelligence (AI) system that could assist persons with dementia by emotionally tailored messages. The system is based on the sociological Affect Control Theory which so far has not been recognized much in AI modeling, and POMDPs (Partially observable Markov Decision Processes).

Dementia is the main reason for elderly people becoming dependent on special care. An AI system may better be able to adapt to the changing personality of a person with dementia than a human, without ever getting impatient or angry. In that sense, the Canadian scientists sketch out a promising path to a future of peaceful and fruitful co-existence between humans and robots.

Robots Support Basic Income

At the current World Economic Forum in Switzerland, some activists published a declaration of robots in support of a basic income for everybody. The event with a dancing robot came in preparation for a Swiss refendum on the topic that will be held in Summer 2016. „We – the robots“, the declaration goes, „call for an universal basic income for humans. We want to work for the humans to relieve them from the struggle for income. We are really good in working. But we do not want to take away people’s jobs and thereby bring them into existential difficulties.“

There is also a German version of the declaration: „Wir Roboter fordern ein bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen für die Menschen. Unsere Aufgabe ist es, die Menschen von der Erwerbsarbeit zu entlasten. Wir arbeiten sehr gerne. Aber wir wollen den Menschen nicht die Jobs wegnehmen und sie dadurch in existenzielle Schwierigkeiten bringen.“

Minesweepers Competition

I recently learned about the robot competition Minesweepers – Towards a Landmine-Free World, which was initiated in 2012 by the Egypt Chapter of IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. The first of the yearly competitions was held in Cairo. There are three categories: Academia, Junior, and Industry with different degrees of difficulty.

One of the initiators of the competition, Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, is currently pursuing a survey among roboticists on the educational value of robot competitions. As he explains, „the aim of this study is to better understand the effect of robotics competitions on participants, teachers and organizers“. Please have a look and take a few minutes to answer his questions.

Germany Fuels Robot Arms Race

Now it is official: As German media report, the German armed forces have decided to procure the Israeli drone Heron TP with the option to weaponize it. So my home country finally has joined the club of nations using armed robots to enforce their interests. It’s a sad day. I feel ashamed.

More details (in German language) can be found in my article Deutsche Roboter sollen Waffen tragen – Die Bundesregierung treibt das Wettrüsten voran (Telepolis, Jan 15, 2016).

Human Societies beyond Earth

First view of Earth from the Moon, seen by Lunar Orbiter 1 on Aug 23, 1966 (Foto: NASA/LOIRP)

… will see humans and robots in completely new relationships. Intelligent machines will provide the necessities of human life, humans and robots will act together and cooperate in the exploration of new worlds. The recent International Symposium on Moon 2020–2030 in Noordwijk, organized by ESA, concentrated on the technological aspects. At the same time, the more sociologically oriented book The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth, edited by Charles Cockell, skips the role of robots in future extraterrestrial societies completely. Both approaches need to converge. It is not too early to discuss and develop a vision for the peaceful und fruitful co-existence of humans and robots in outer space.