I am never alone. I share my Grand Cayman home with three humans, two dogs, one cat, and two robots. A few times per week my mechanical friends sweep the floors throughout my house. They navigate around chairs, scurry under tables, and annoy the cat. The more advanced model knows when it’s had enough and returns to its docking station to nestle in for a recharge.
This is all very important to me because it means I don’t have to sweep. While the robots work, I am free to engage in activities far more appropriate for a member of the most intelligent species on Earth—like watching TV.
Robots have plans that extend far beyond mere housework, however. Soon they will be everywhere. But there is the slight possibility of a downside—extinction of the human species. Yes, intelligent machines in the not-so-distant future may become so smart that they could threaten our existence. My cute little floor sweepers may turn out to be the great-great grandparents of real-life “terminators” that will kill us all one day.
Just like any other normal Cayman family, my children and I often discuss the impending robot apocalypse. My son reassures me that robots won’t have any need to fight us because we will eventually be machines just like them. We will become robots, he believes. Given recent advances in prosthetic limbs, ear implants, brain implants, and so on, he may be on to something. Maybe we will merge with our technology so intimately and thoroughly that there will be no “us” and “them” to define battle lines. My daughter is not worried either. She is convinced that someone will be smart enough to remember to simply program the robots to be nice. Ah, don’t you just love youthful optimism?
Still, I wonder. With computers on course to become freakishly powerful in about three or four decades, and with robotics development in high gear, will we be able to hang on to civilization’s top rung? It seems likely that a game-changing new “species” is on the horizon and approaching fast, one that will be difficult if not impossible for us to control. Thanks in large part to unprecedented military investment in robotics, we are now stepping into a very different world—for better or worse. “In the blink of an eye,” writes Peter Singer in his book, “Wired for War”, “things that were just fodder for science fiction are creeping, crawling, flying, swimming and shooting on today’s battlefields. And these machines are just the first generation of these new technologies, some of which may already be antiquated as you read these lines.”
Hugo de Garis, an artificial intelligence researcher as well as my pleasant Face Book friend, may be engineering our collective doom. He is the author of the nightmare-inducing book, “The Artilect War,” in which he admits feeling conflicted about his work. He believes it is highly probable that super-intelligent machines will brush us aside one day. Despite those fears, however, his research is so fascinating that he can’t stop himself.
Unprecedented transformations are occurring right now. For example, did you know that in 2009 the United States Air Force trained more ground-based “pilots” to fly robot planes than it did traditional pilots for conventional planes? This year, the Air Force is projected to acquire more new robot planes than new conventional aircraft. This represents a monumental shift in the human-robot equation, yet the public mostly doesn’t know or doesn’t care. The various military robots that we know of are controlled and monitored closely by humans today, but what about tomorrow? Robot autonomy on the battlefield will be here soon, if it isn’t already.
The military, rather than my floor-sweeping needs, is driving much of the cutting edge research. So much so that when the final histories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are written one day it is possible that surprisingly little attention will be given to Bush, Saddam, the Taliban, oil, and terrorism. The greatest impact of these wars may well turn out to be robots.
I attended an exhibition of advanced and near-future technology called “NextFest” a few years ago in Chicago. I spoke with a representative from the company that makes one of the drones used by the US Air Force. He let me play with a small hand-held computer device that allowed me to zoom in on Iraqi city with stunning precision and detail. I also spoke with a solider who wore a sleek prototype suit that, when fully developed, would make him stronger and even tighten automatically like a tourniquet to slow blood loss if he was wounded in battle. A Japanese woman demonstrated how strong she was thanks to the robotic “exoskeleton” she wore. I saw ASIMO, the famous Japanese robot, do its usual slow shuffling walk. Interested but not overwhelmed, I felt like I was watching the Australopithecus of robot evolution. But, of course, the robot equivalents of Homo erectus and Neanderthal are already being designed or built somewhere right now. There will be no four-million-year-wait for them. Don’t blink.
I am not suggesting that anyone should panic or lose sleep over a possible robot takeover in the future. At the very least, however, you should be aware of what they are up to. The robots are not coming; they are here already. The invasion has begun. I know because an indifferent little robot on a mission just rolled by in front of me right here in my living room. It cares nothing about me; it just wants to sweep. That’s what it does; that’s who it is. I admire its dedication and focus. But I wonder, will the day come when its descendants demand more?
Guy P. Harrison is the author of two books, including “Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know about Our Biological Diversity.”