All posts tagged: sentient machine


Opinions held in the ethical debate surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence (AI) are as diverse as they are fiercely debated. Not only is there the question of whether or not we’ll be “playing god” by creating a true AI, but also the issue of how we install a set of human-friendly ethics within a sentient machine.

With humanity currently divided across numerous of different countries, religions and groups, the question of who gets to make the final call is a tricky one. It may well be left to whichever country gets there first, and the dominating opinion within their government and scientific community. After that, we may just have to let it run and hope for the best.

Is the Birth of Artificial Intelligence Inevitable?

Each week, scores of academic papers are released from universities the world over staunchly defending the various opinions. One interesting factor here is that it’s broadly accepted that this event will happen within the next few decades. After all, in 2011 Caltech created the first artificial neural network in a test tube, the first robot with “muscles” and “tendons” in now with us in the form of Ecci, and huge leaps forward are being made in just about every relevant scientific discipline.

It’s as exciting as it is incredible to consider that we may witness such an event. One paper by Nick Bostrom of Oxford University’s philosophy department stated that there seems currently to be no good ground for assigning a negligible probability to the hypothesis that super-intelligence will be created within the lifespan of some people alive today”. This is a convoluted way of saying that the super-intelligent machines of sci-fi are a very probable future reality.

Roboethics and Machine Ethics

So, what ethics are in question here? Roboethics looks at the rights of the machines that we create in the same way as our own human rights. It’s something of a reality check to consider what rights a sentient robot would have, such as freedom of speech and self-expression.

Machine ethics is slightly different and applies to computers and other systems sometimes referred to as artificial moral agents (AMAs). A good example of this is in the military and the philosophical conundrum of where the responsibility would lie if somebody died in “friendly fire” from an artificially intelligent drone. How can you court-martial a machine?

In 1942, Isaac Asimov wrote a short story which defined his Three Laws of Robotics:

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

This cleverly-devised trio of behaviour-governing rules appears infallible, but how would they fare in real life? Asimov’s series of stories on the subject hinted that no rules could adequately govern behaviour in an entirely failsafe way in all potential situations, and inspired the 2004 movie of the same name: “I, Robot”.

Who Gets to Call the Shots?

Other controversial areas of development such as bio technology also raise the question of whether or not we’re trying to play God. These are difficult questions, but it seems almost inevitable that scientific progress will thoroughly push the boundaries over coming decades. The potent combination of our endless curiosity and possible commercial applications will inevitably keep moving things forward.

So where does this place artificial intelligence technology? Surely, the power potentially commanded by an artificial super-intelligence, the technology it could create, and the devastation it could wreak if it got out of control, puts it in a whole different ballpark to artificially creating algae to harness the energy of sunlight?

Japan is arguably the current front runner for robotics systems, and with a shrinking population comprised of an increasing percentage of elderly people in need of pensions and healthcare funded by limited numbers of working taxpayers, it seems unlikely that Japan will suddenly hold back due to the ethical debate.

As interesting as it is to consider the ethical implications of artificial intelligence, it’s easy to overlook the fact that this is a global, human race issue rather than a country-specific issue. It’s not like landing on the moon where countries can be pitted against one another in a space race scenario. But perhaps with the increasing effect of the Internet meshing us all together, some decisions will be made in the global fashion that they deserve.

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Muhammad AwaisRoboethics and the Inevitability of Artificial Intelligence