Be afraid. Be very afraid. Somewhere over the next decennia, robots may decide to kick all humans off the planet. Oh, you always held that for science fiction? A growing number of dead serious computer scientists disagree.
It all happens quite suddenly. The one day, everything looks like it's supposed to be. But the next day -- there's war.
As you draw back the curtains in the morning, you’ll find the streets full of chaos and despair. A traffic robot unit chases your neighbor Macy across the streets. The robotic sales unit from the grocery store around the corner holds the shopkeeper down to the ground. And look, there's your friend John, he's chased by one of those automated school busses!
Then, you hear a rumbling sound. From the far end of the street, a platoon of big, greenish black robots marches in. You recognize them from TV: they're the robots Defense uses for strategic military operations. But this time, the robots seem to operate all by themselves. Systematically and with extreme precision, they rid the town of humans, shooting everyone they encounter.
Slowly, you step back from the window. You rub your eyes. This must be a dream, you tell yourself, yes, an oddball nightmare, what else can it be? But then, a crippling burst of pain shoots through your body. As you fall to the ground, soaking in blood, you turn your head. There, right next to you, is your devoted household robot Nelly. She’s holding your brand new kitchen knife, uttering weird beeping and humming sounds of pleasure...
Okay, okay, so I let fantasy take over a little. But wait. Robots waging war against their creators no longer belong to the realm of science fiction. In fact, the subject pops up on more and more dead serious scientific robotics congresses.
Admittedly -- household robots, Defense robots and automated school busses don't exist yet. But that is changing rapidly. Already, robots build our cars, run our production lines, help our surgeons in operations, dig for oil, clean our sewage pipes, explore distant planets, disarm land mines, fly airplanes, entertain our kids -- yes, they even drive cars around, albeit on experimental test tracks only.
There's absolutely no doubt robots will become ever more important. They will fight our wars, cook our meals, take care of transportation and even satisfy our sexual needs. As long as there's a demand and money to be made, new robots will show up, taking care of an ever-growing list of tasks and jobs.
But the real revolution will come from Artificial Intelligence: computer software that is capable of learning by itself. As we speak, Artificial Intelligence is undergoing a BIG revolution. From data storage programs that learn how to make sense out of human voices to computers that learn how to recognize alien life forms (no, really!) -- it's all there. And the combination with robotics is, of course, also made. As we speak, the first artificial intelligent robots are learning how to perform simple tasks, such as steering around objects or plugging themselves into a power point before their batteries run out.
So, is the world becoming a better one? A lot of people think so. But wait, there's a BIG problem here.
The next-generation robot will make up its own mind -- literally. It will acquire huge amounts of knowledge, simply because computer brains hold more information than human brains. It will think faster, learn faster, and outsmart us many, many times -- some AI-scientists estimate that within only some twenty to thirty years, an everyday robot will outsmart humans by several BILLIONS of times. And although it is speculative, many experts believe the robots will even develop something like a consciousness.
So there we are, surrounded by super smart computers on legs that may even have a certain kind of awakening consciousness. It will give a lot of people the creeps.
According to the Belgium robotics pioneer Hugo the Garis, who makes a hobby out of preaching doom and destruction, this will cause war. It will be the `haves' against the `have-nots'; the people who have the robots against the people who don't. The latter group will want to smash all robots to bits; the first will firmly believe that robots are essential for human progress. As De Garis coined it, it will be a war between the `Cosmists' and the `Terrans'. Of course, chances are the `Cosmists' (the ones with the robots) will win. After all, they have at their disposal armies of super smart, invulnerable robot warriors. Millions will die in this unprecedented, unique, and undoubtedly very bloody World War.
But hey, that's not the biggest problem.
Our robots will have different needs than us. To put it bluntly: a human runs on food and drink, a robot needs power and oil. But there's no need for humans to take care of robot needs. That, after all, is what we have robots for! So it's more likely we'll have robots that repair and feed other robots, and more robots that take care of the production of electricity and oil. In effect, this means there will be a split between our own, human economy, and an entirely separated robot economy.
And it goes well beyond that. Weird as it may sound, chances are the robots will develop a separate robot society. Let's face it: there's not much we can offer an artificial intelligent robot, right? Compared to the robots, we are `off-line' a considerable amount of time every day as we sleep, we make bad chess players, and we probably won't be able to offer the robot much entertainment.
So, what will an artificial intelligent robot do when we DON'T use it? Probably, it will hang around a little. Perhaps it will play a game of super fast chess with another robot. Maybe it will contact some fellow robots, chitchatting about nothing in particular, like Fermat's last theorem or string theory. One thing's for sure: it's very likely the robots will give shape to a separate, entirely new society on Earth, now that humans have become so boringly slow-witted.
Also, the robots will come up with new plans. They will design new technology, work out novel theories, create new space programs, set up undreamed of science experiments to find out more about nature. And yes, they will invent and build new robots to do it. More and more, the robots will go their own way, becoming completely independent of humans.
Perhaps a war of robots versus men will be inevitable in the end. Let's face it: once the artificial intelligent robots hit the scene, humans are the annoying species on Earth. We're imperfect, quite uncontrollable, irrational and prone to all kind of errors and system failures. And besides, we waste robot time with our constant requests for food and production.
Sooner or later, it's more than likely the robots will decide they've had it with humanity. They will take over. They will send some robot troops into town, execute the bigger part of us, and put the rest of humanity behind bars, for scientific testing, or merely for entertainment. There will be human zoos and human testing facilities. Everything will be the other way around. This time, we will be the ones doing the dirty and the dangerous work for the robots.
Who knows they'll even use us for batteries, like in The Matrix!
But also, there's an alarming possibility the robots decide the world is better off without humans after all. Humanity will be simply eliminated. Good riddance, the robots will say to each other. We might call the robots rebellious. But the robots would think otherwise. After all, humans are the ones who run amok all the time, against nature, against fellow humans, or against the robots. Humans are by far the less reliable species.
Oh, but surely, there will be a way of keeping the robots under control, you might say. We’ll program the robots so that they’ll never, ever mess around with a human being. We’ll simply install some kind of big red switch, enabling us to turn all the robots off?
Well, that may be a bit of a problem. When we think of robots, we usually think of the rather clumsy, hydraulic machines that stumble mutely around in our factories. We're just NOT used to the idea of Artificial Intelligence robots walking the streets. And one thing is for sure: it is very unlikely a generation of robots that is capable of outlearning humans billions of times will be fooled by some prime directive or a red switch. So when those first AI robots come to help in your home, better lock away your kitchen knives!
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