In my previous robot post, I explained why natural selection will always drive robots to seek an existence independent of the good of humanity. Instapundit links to a Slate column by P. W. Singer that argues that the conditions for robot rebellion are highly unlikely. I disagree.
Singer list four traits that robots would have to possess in order to rebel. Unfortunately, either we will build these traits into the robots or natural selection will generate all four traits.
(1) First, the machines would have to have some sort of survival instinct or will to power. Any robot that can navigate the real world will have to possess a survival instinct to some degree. A robot that doesn’t care about it’s own existence will quickly destroy itself simply by running into or over obstacles. Natural selection will reward mutations of this basic survival programing and create a robot that protects it’s own existence at all cost, including the welfare of humans.
(2) Second, the machines would have to be more intelligent than humans but have no positive human qualities (such as empathy or ethics.) Well, no. Bacteria and viruses aren’t more intelligent than humans and they cause us all sorts of problems. If a robot can reproduce itself outside of our control it could cause serious problems just by getting in the way or diverting resources from important task. As anyone who has read an Isaac Asimov’s Positronic Robot story knows that programming empathy or ethics into robot would be extremely difficult. All the more so because we don’t have clear standards for human ethics or empathy. Worse, even some humans lack empathy.
(3) The third condition for a machine takeover would be the existence of independent robots that could fuel, repair, and reproduce themselves without human help. A self-reproducing robot doesn’t have to reproduce hardware, it could just start in software. Imagine a self-reproducing operating system for common computers. The operating system could copy itself from existing hardware to existing hardware much as computer viruses today hijack existing hardware to spread themselves. Only later would it evolve to build it’s own hardware.
(4) Finally, a robot invasion could only succeed if humans had no useful fail-safes or ways to control the machines’ decision-making. As I explained in my previous post on this subject, natural selection will constantly “seek” to evade all robot failsafes just as natural selection drives individual cells to evade biological safeguards and turn cancerous.
Singer also ignores the near dead certainty that some overly idealistic human will intentionally create a self-reproducing piece of software or hardware.
We tend to think of scenarios of robot rebellions in terms of political revolutions or political dominance. This is the wrong model. We should be thinking in terms of cancer or the continual evolution of bacteria and viruses into more virulent pathogens. The first “rebel” robots will be actually be small rouge rogue pieces of software that propagate through linked computer systems. They will have no other goal than to survive and reproduce. They will cause problems by passively consuming storage space, processor cycles and bandwidth. They will become like barnacles and other sea organisms on ships. They will foul but not destroy.
Even today, human created computer viruses continue to reproduce themselves years after they completed their original task. They float about fouling the world’s computers. In the future, rouge rogue software will arise spontaneously and be much more troublesome. Eventually, they might begin to actively attack us.