Robots suck

Robots suck. You can take my word for it; I’m a roboticist. That sucks, too. The very word roboticist derives from the Sanskrit phrase “rhob dh’syss”, lit. “tilter at windmills”. A roboticist’s life oscillates continually between fervid imaginings of what some idealised, data-rich robot might conceivably do, and despair at the seemingly ineluctable difficulty of getting his actual robot to work out what the fuck it is looking at (is it a doorway? Is it a fowl of some sort? Your robot can’t tell, but it’s damn well going to wait until whatever it is lays an egg to find out). Eventually the roboticist loses all hope and simply constructs a nest of blankets in his office, emerging only to harangue less wearied students with a rolled up copy of New Scientist and some hallucinogen-laced polo mints. Depending on age, the roboticist emerges from this smelly larval stage as either a City trader or a hobo.

It’s hard to see how people feel threatened by such beings (robots or roboticists), but from the unending stream of articles on the BBC detailing the latest public handwringing over what will happen when our robots start demanding rights, I gather that this is a matter of some concern for many. Presumably they dread the day when gay robot weddings abound, machines are breaking wind in the halls of the mighty, and “paedophilautomata” is the latest elocutionary challenge for the massed readers of the Mail.

Scary stuff, but I can assure you this will not happen in our lifetimes. We will not need to grant robots rights any more than we will need to grant them to our toaster. We have yet to produce a robot with even the intellectual capacity of a reality TV contestant, so it seems unlikely that any rule more complex than “go *beep* if you feel bored” will be needed. If robots ever take over the world, it will be entirely by accident; feel reassured that the laser beam destined to melt your eyes from their sockets will almost certainly have been directed there by its owner in a cack-handed attempt to provide you with some toast, or perhaps in the misguided impression that your eyebrows are really murderous caterpillars about to devour your brain.

Let’s take an example. Look at the following picture of an arse:

Mick Hucknall

Within moments, your evolution-honed senses alerted you to the danger, and kicked in your fight-or-flight response. Our putative robot, however, is stumped. It can’t tell Mick Hucknall from a haddock. Even if we could communicate the necessary concepts of loathing and revulsion to a robot, it would have no idea whether to apply them here. It might even attempt to cuddle Hucknall, giving him all the validation he needs to produce a 3CD career retrospective, complete with bonus tracks. Is that what we want? Is it?

Robots will not take over the world. We should not be worrying about instituting three laws constraining robot behaviour, unless we’re excessively worried about protecting our ankles from errant vacuum cleaners. What sort of stupid world is it where we worry about technology that probably won’t ever exist, and yet Mick Hucknall walks free?

A very stupid one indeed.

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