Planet of the robotic citizen apes

If we’re already creating robots that are highly intelligent, and experienced in the assembly and manufacture of complex mechanical devices… what’s to stop a future intelligent robot from creating and programming its own line of robotic offspring?

Sophia is the first AI robot to be granted citizenship by saudi arabia
Sophia is the first AI robot to be granted citizenship by saudi arabia

I never thought I’d be the one to have to say this, but… seriously, guys: you’re all watching way too many films. I mean, what the hell is even going on? I leave my computer for literally a few seconds to make a coffee… and when I come back, it’s as though everything’s suddenly morphed into a dystopian sci-fi frigging nightmare.

Just yesterday we were talking about all the usual, commonplace things we normally like to ‘discuss’ in this country – corruption, the state of the roads, X-Factor, the marital life of politicians, scandals involving sex, drugs and… um… sadly, no rock and roll (come to think of it: we never really talk about rock and roll here, do we? Explains a lot…) – and the next thing you know, the news is suddenly all about facial-recognition cameras, granting rights (including citizenship) to robots, and how Marsa has become ‘the Planet of the Apes’.

What’s it going to be next, folks? Genetically-engineered dinosaurs? (Hang on… wouldn’t want to give Charles Polidano any ideas, now would we?) Aliens suddenly bursting out of people’s rib-cages? Computers ‘terminating’ their users, because they feel they’re ‘too important to be shut down’?

This is the thing with science fiction, you know. Under normal circumstances, I would be the last to warn against ‘watching too many films’. (In my book, there is no such thing as ‘too many films’ anyway). But if you’re going to watch sci-fi – or horror, for the two genres are closely inter-related – the least you could do is try and take the general message on board.

How many times do entire crews of intergalactic spaceships have to get wiped out by supercomputers like Hal 9000, before we all understand that placing our entire fate in the hands of technology is just not… a good… idea? And how many mad scientists have to come to tragic ends, before we finally get it into our heads that ‘re-animating that corpse’ (or ‘stepping into that teleporter’, or ‘imbibing that bubbly, multi-coloured concoction in that test-tube’ might have unforeseen – and particularly gory – consequences for all humanity?

But I fear it’s far too late for any of that now. You watched the films, you didn’t heed the warnings… and here we go again, like every crappy sequel to every blockbuster disaster movie ever made. Only this time, it’s not directed by Roland Emmerich. This time, it all feels disturbingly real…

Let’s stick to the robots for the time being. According to the news this morning (and as far as I know, there’s no such thing as ‘November Fools Day’) “… robots with artificial intelligence could soon be able to apply for Maltese citizenship after the government unveiled plans for a pilot project that will look to create a test for determining whether robots are able to understand their legal rights [and] responsibilities as citizens.”

Unless it’s some kind of elaborate practical joke – and if so, kudos to them: they really got me there – my only reaction to that is: What? Are you guys nuts?!

That is precisely how it always begins: just add a little creepy background music, and the above quote could be the intro to any number of sci-fi/horror classics, all of which end in untold death and disaster (before Bruce Willis comes to save the day, of course).  It echoes the basic plot of at least two classic ‘Doctor Who’ series: ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, and ‘The Robots of Death’. (Here, let me repeat that last one so it sinks in: ‘The Robots of… DEATH!’)

And here we all are, nonchalantly discussing the possibility like it wasn’t an impending, ‘extinction-level event’ disaster of the kind that sci-fi authors and screenwriters have been warning us about for over a century….

Well, all right then. By all means, let’s give citizenship rights to intelligent robots. (Just don’t come crying to me afterwards, that’s all). But let us also ponder a few of the possible consequences while we’re at it.

One such outcome is suggested in the above quote itself: ‘a test for determining whether robots are able to understand their legal rights [and] responsibilities as citizens’.

We already know some of the things that ‘robots’ – in the broader sense of the word – are capable of. They are used in factories to assemble cars and trucks, for instance (and super-tankers, and Space Shuttles, and nuclear warheads, etc). Robotic arms can effortlessly lift the heaviest of weights, and are subtle and dexterous enough to handle the tiniest of screws and mechanical gadgets.

Even without artificial intelligence, I reckon they’d still make pretty powerful, potentially dangerous things in the wrong hands…  

On the other side of the spectrum, you have ‘robots’ (computers, actually) like ‘Deep Blue’, which are famously capable of beating even people like Kasparov at chess. Because that’s what all those sci-fi movies were trying to warn us all along: robots are stronger, more powerful and a heck of a lot cleverer than most of us humans out here (if not all of us humans put together). And unless we can also program things like ‘empathy’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ into their circuits…

… ooh, that reminds me of the plot of another sci-fi film. What was it again? Ah yes: ‘The Matrix’ (Remember? The one where the entire human race – except Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves – ends up existing only to ‘feed’ a superior race of robotic octopi?) Well, who’s to say that it will be human beings to do all the programming (and construction) of other robots in future?

If we’re already creating robots that are highly intelligent, and experienced in the assembly and manufacture of complex mechanical devices… what’s to stop a future intelligent robot from creating and programming its own line of robotic offspring?

What if – just like every ‘creation’-based work of fiction, from ‘Frankenstein’ onward – it decides to create that progeny of robots according to its own (as opposed to ‘our’) designs and intentions? And what if this future race of ultra-powerful, ultra-intelligent robots takes one look at humanity, and concludes (not unreasonably, it must be said) that we’re actually just a blight on this planet, to which the only solution is… EXTERMINATE!

Honestly: is it possible that none of this even remotely occurred to the people who are seriously (or so it seems) contemplating this madness? Like many others I heard Sofia speaking Maltese, too… and though she didn’t say it in as many words, I also I heard her prophesy the Doom of Mankind.

But no matter. Let’s face it, those future robots won’t be too far wrong. Maybe we do need a little extermination here and there. So, if we’re all committed to this new-fangled idea of paving the way to our own extinction, we may as well make darn sure that it happens as quickly as possible. And what better way than to give our future exterminators the exact same ‘rights and responsibilities’ as ourselves?

Let’s try and guess how this will all pan out, shall we? Last I looked, ‘civic rights and responsibilities’ also included the right to vote in elections, and – because the two rights are actually just the flipside of each other – also the right to contest elections.

We cannot talk of granting citizenship to robots, without including those two rights. (Otherwise, we’d only be creating an unjust, two-tier citizenship model… and do I even have to add that robots will be intelligent enough to understand the injustice, and strong enough to rebel)?

Where is Isaac Asimov when you need him? There are so many ways this could go horribly wrong that I can barely keep track of the possibilities as they enter my mind. In the short-term, you can rest assured that the Nationalist and Labour Parties will invest in vast underground facilities for the endless mass-production of Nationalist and Labour ‘robo-voters’.

Future elections will be won by the party that can afford to churn out the largest number of mindless, automated paranoid androids, programmed only to offer unconditional support to their party, and to automatically agree with it in everything it says and does…

Erm… come to think of it, we actually reached that stage a long time ago. A bit late to be worrying about it now. After all, what difference does it make if your standard mindless party stooge is made of flesh or bone, or computer chips and digital circuitry?

None that I can see…Ah, but what if the robots get together and form a party of their own? I can see it already: PDM, ‘Il-Partit Droidiku Malti’… honestly, what chance could either Labour or PN possibly stand, against an entire assembly of clinical, precise, Kasparov-beating robotic chess masterminds? It would be a massacre.

Heck, even I’d vote for the robots, over the current lot of humans on either side…Hmmm. I shall have to admit some of these possible consequences no longer seem all that scary all of a sudden.

Just imagine a Parliament composed of efficient, diligent, problem-solving machines… immune to corruption (for what would a robot do with money, anyway?), and perfectly capable of taking necessary decisions on the basis of dispassionate, clinical reasoning… instead of the hot-headed, emotional tribalism that we, as humans, never seem able to rise above…

But then, that niggling little voice starts pricking at my conscience again:

“Open the pod bay doors, please, Hal […] Hal, open the pod bay doors. […] Please, Hal, open the pod bay doors […] Do you read me Hal? […] Hal, I said open the bloody pod bay… [...] Hal, what are you doing with that chain-saw? […] Look, Hal, I’m sorry I called you a useless rust-bucket yesterday […] wait, no […] Hal? HAL! HA-A-E-E-ELP! AAAAARGH…!”

And just remember: it all started with ‘rights for robots’…

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