Robots Unplugged: Will We Face a Man-Machine Conflict?

Published: 07th July 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th July 2015 11:08 PM   |  A+A-

Man makes robots. Now, a robot has killed a man. Though not the first time, the tragic incident that involved an assembly robot reportedly grabbing a young worker at a Volkswagen plant in Germany and crushing him to death between metal recently has been labelled in some quarters as “a man-machine” conflict (as opposed to the age-old man-animal one). In this context, it is pertinent to reflect on the idea of a possible apocalypse that may be unleashed, if all the science fiction stories we read and movies we watch are to come alive some day. One has to acknowledge that behind this far-fetched cynicism, lurks a raw truth that shines like a metal.

One of the Three Laws of Robotics posited by the great American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in his popular short story Runaround states that: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Evidently, Asimov’s first law has been flouted, resulting in a tragic loss of a life. And it is also inevitable in the modern, rational society that boasts of a fair and fearless “justice system” that there should be no crime that goes without punishment. But aren’t laws designed for and to bring a sense of parity among conscious beings, who are able to think and process and judge and decide and machinate and act accordingly?

The “industrial mishap” has also kicked up a debate as to who should be held accountable for the death? Who should be prosecuted? Whom to punish?

Does this bloody incident lend credence to a universal disaster-in-waiting as interpreted by some sceptics of industrialisation and mechanisation about the probable inimical, boomeranging role of the rise of the machines, especially in the backdrop of ballooning development of sophisticated artificial intelligence. After all, several of the predictions made by sci-fi writers, say for instance the 19th century French author Jules Verne and the British novelist H G Wells, have been proved prescient over time. For example, electric submarines, newscasts, tasers, splashdown spaceships, atomic bombs to mention a few (so, what next, an actual Time Machine?)

Several ideas that were once deemed mere products of imagination feasible only in the realm of science fiction are being transformed into real-life possibilities, in many cases even as simple everyday utilities. Interstellar and interplanetary travel used to be wishful thinking. But today, ordinary citizens are getting short-listed for well-funded and meticulously planned extraterrestrial odysseys to the moon and Mars. Intergalactic drama gripped readers and audience in the latter part of the 20th century, thanks to pop culture franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek. Though these were just figments of imagination then, today the edge of space is no more an uncharted territory.

High-end research is being done at myriad technological institutes across the world in an attempt to build state-of-the-art machines and handy equipment capable of doing both ordinary and difficult tasks with excellent efficiency and accuracy. This progress, even revolution, is partly out of an innate curiosity to innovate and mainly to aid us in the day-to-day life. While on one hand, fast and furious research is conducted on genetic engineering, on the other hair-splitting inventions and innovations are being carried out in robotics.

But, at least for the sake of a doomsday prediction, what if the machines take over one day? What if the Frankenstein’s monster were to breathe life (read autonomous artificial intelligence) into itself? One pop culture example I can cite to picture such a futuristic scenario is Will Smith-starrer I, Robot (inspired by Asimov’s short story collection by the same name.) The dystopian action flick takes up the theme of disobedience of the Three Laws of Robotics by humanoid robots set in 2035 and the dire consequences their makers face (nevertheless, in classic Hollywood vogue, Will Smith saves his flesh-and-blood species from perdition anyway). Will we be lucky enough to have such a messiah?


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