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2019 – The Year Of The Robot

January 2, 2019

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm

2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law

– The Three Laws of Robotics, from 1942 “Runaround” Isaac Asimov

The brilliant science fiction writer Isaac Asimov gave us the Three Laws, but we have to look even further back to find the origin of the word ROBOT. The word, and concept was introduced nearly 100 years ago.

Robot – a bio-engineered worker without a soul

Introduced in 1920 play “RUR” or Russum’s Universal Robots” by Czech playwright Karel Capek

The word itself is from the Old Church Slavonic word, robota. The word means “servitude of forced labor.” And as long as robots have inhabited literature or our imaginations, that’s what they have been, servants.

Robots came to life, real life, in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1948 William Walter invented two robots he called Elmer and Elsie. They didn’t do much, but they were able to mimic lifelike behaviors and could crawl back to their charging stations when they started to run out of juice. In 1954 George Devol invented the first digitally operated and programmable robot. The first industrial robot. It was called Unimate. In 1961 it was introduced to the factory floor in a GM plant in 1961.

I think 2019 will be, in many ways the first true year of the robot. Today robots take many forms. There are industrial robots that don’t look at all like a person. And there are hyper life-like robots that are . . .very lifelike. We have self-driving cars. We have self-propelled vacuum cleaners. We have robots that don’t move, such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana and whatever you call the “Hey, Google” persona.

The line between robotics and artificial intelligence, or AI has continued to blur. AIs have become more and more sophisticated. In fact, AIs, while lacking true sentience, have managed to beat the masters in nearly all games of chance and skill. When left to “learn” by themselves, AIs will also cheat in order to win. Not just games, but ordinary tasks as well.

And that’s the problem. Robots, powered by AI are only as good as their programmers. Robots, and their underlying AI have a heart of code, not flesh. It means that robots don’t make moral judgements. They simply do what they are programmed to do. Sometimes this is with tragic results.

Industrial robots don’t think twice about crushing a human worker if he, or she, happens to get in the way. Automated cars, which have ventured tentatively out on the roads in 2018, will quickly join in droves.

In 1811, a group of men in Nottingham England, formed a secret society dedicated to protesting the use of machinery in the textile industry. They were called the Luddites. And their name has become synonymous with anti-technology. In 1816 the Luddites were eventually surpressed by military response.

We can expect similar responses as we witness 2019s rise of the machines. Last year, in Chandler, AZ, a self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian. The company Waymo (owned by Google) is testing self-driving cars in Chandler. Tensions are rising. Twenty Waymo self-driving cars have had their tires slashed over the past two years.

Alexa and similar digital assistants have raised privacy concerns. Security hasn’t kept up with the exciting advances in robots and artificial intelligence.

But, like the Luddites, those who oppose the coming robot invasion are destined to fail.

At some time in the not too distant future artificial intelligence will reach a point at which it will achieve true sentience. It’s called the singularity. If a “dumb” AI will cheat to win a game, what will a “smart” AI do? It’s a question that technologists and science fiction writers have debated for a hundred years.

Asimov created his Three Laws to address the issue.

Too bad for now they are just fiction. Because no matter what happens, the robots are coming whether we are ready for them or not.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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(c) 2018 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved

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