Robots serve a purpose, but let’s keep control

Date Published: 
July 21, 2017

Remember Rosie?

No, not Rosey Grier, the former star defensive lineman for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams. And, no, not Rosie O’Donnell, frequent foe of our president and fictional baseball player in “A League of Their Own.” Nor am I talking about Rosie Perez, the fast-talking actress of “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Do the Right Thing.”

I’m talking about Rosie — the robotic maid of the “The Jetsons.” You know, that shiny housekeeper with the frilly apron who used to refer to George as “Mr. J.” and quite often came off as the only reasonable-thinking character on the show? Yeah, that’s her.

Rosie was awesome. She was quite often the glue of the Jetson family, and, unlike her counterpart Alice on “The Brady Bunch,” Rosie didn’t have any silly human emotions vying for her attention — a la Sam the butcher. I never trusted Sam. He always seemed a little too eager to...

But I digress.

Rosie was but my first love in the world of robotics. My infatuation only grew when the show “Knight Rider” came on the air, and the lead character was assisted on his ludicrous missions by KITT, a talking Firebird that offered Michael Knight advice and a dose of maturity, along with autonomous driving and body armor.

Pop culture has fallen in love with robots from Star Wars, Terminator, Short Circuit, Robots, Wall-E, Futurama, RoboCop, Transformers and Lost in Space — not to mention that oddball little robotic figure in the Rocky movie that both served drinks and illustrated how wealthy athletes can lose all their money so quickly.

We have watched as robots have both streamlined manufacturing, and made many workers obsolete. Robots are being tested as Uber drivers, serving as drones dropping death from above and clearing dangerous situations by disposing of bombs or giving police or military personnel an extra set of eyes during high-stress events.

Robots have indeed become a significant part of today’s society, and all trends seem to point toward them playing an even larger role in the future. There is significant talk of robot chefs that can prepare meals the exact same way every time, robot switchboards at major companies and robot editors who do twice the work for a fraction of the money and never...

You know, let’s just forget I even brought up that last one.

The reason I embarked on this robots-in-society journey is because of an article I came across on cnn.com the other day, regarding a discussion during a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting on Tuesday, July 18. The central characters in the meeting were discussing a Department of Defense (DoD) directive that “requires a human operator to be kept in the decision-making process when it comes to taking of human life by autonomous weapons systems.”

That restriction was “due to expire later this year,” according to Sen. Gary Peters, and the committee was apparently debating if that should be extended or not.

Gen. Paul Selva, America’s second-highest ranking military officer, said he was in favor of the directive, for “keeping the ethical rules of war in place lest we unleash on humanity a set of robots that we don’t know how to control.”

This... well, this is interesting, isn’t it?

There’s an old saying that every war ends, but war never does. The premise is that every war reaches an inevitable conclusion, but that the next one is always right around the corner. We’ve seen that in our own nation’s history, and have clear evidence that this has been the case across this spinning rock since Uga the cavemen first scrawled battle plans on a wall with a sharpened bone from a dinosaur jaw.

Wars happen, and they will continue to do so as long as people have anything to say about it.

So, with that as an incredibly-depressing backdrop, wouldn’t it make sense to build an army of super-robots to take the place of our flesh-and-blood sons and daughters, neighbors and friends? Autonomous devices that can make split-second decisions, brave any elements before them and seek and destroy our enemies?

Well, sure. But, like Selva said, we’d still want to have the ability to control them, even remotely.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to put robots in charge of whether or not we take a human life,” said Selva. He continued later that “we take our values to war.”

This is a strong point, and one that should get more attention. When Peters made the very-accurate argument that other nations may not share our restraint on this matter, Selva said he agreed, and that though he didn’t want our military to practice indiscriminate robot-killing, that “doesn’t mean that we don’t have to address the development of those kinds of technologies and potentially find their vulnerabilities and exploit those vulnerabilities.”

He’s right.

Other countries or armies might torture. They might behead prisoners, bomb without conscience or send off an army of robot soldiers to kill without hesitation or thought. None of that means we must do the same.

I’m excited about where the world is going with robots, and think they can be astonishing tools that save first-responders, improve safety in workplaces and make Firebirds really cool.

But let’s keep the ethical decisions in our hands, and try to keep the “human” part of humanity in our minds.