Will we become the masters or the servants of our technologies? (Image: Vincent Fournier/Gallerystock)
AUTONOMOUS weapons, self-driving vehicles, robotic manufacturing plants. If these technologies are transforming our future, wouldn’t it be wise to know what makes their designers tick, and what roles they envision for their human operators?
What these roles turn out to be, argues New York Times science writer John Markoff, involves not a technical but an ethical choice. In his new book Machines of Loving Grace, he X-rays the artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction communities to discover their respective value systems.
With remarkable access to the archives, test sites and conference rooms ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Silicon Valley, Markoff probes the philosophical fault line that runs through university and commercial labs, and has divided organisations since the 1950s.
It turns out that the two camps roughly subscribe to either automating humans away, or assisting them by augmenting their capabilities. The deep rift is epitomised by the debate on crewed versus robotic space exploration: even if you decide in favour of an astronaut, should she or he be an active supervisor or a passive passenger?
Markoff also documents how robotics developers have surfed the wave of military spending, most notably by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Its dual-use inventions find civilian and military purposes – think autonomous vacuum cleaners versus their “milspec” cousins sniffing out roadside bombs.
And it is defence where Markoff sees the struggle as most evident: trading the cost-effectiveness and precision of autonomous systems with the “consequences of approaching the line where humans are no longer in control in decisions on life and death”. Will we become the servants of the technologies we create?
Markoff’s concluding question is the starting point for Wendell Wallach, an ethicist and scholar at Yale University. The title of his book, A Dangerous Master, warns what will happen if we fail to establish formal measures to anticipate and address the implications of technologies during the design process.
Broadening the scope, Wallach includes cybersecurity, 3D printing, nuclear energy, bio, nano and geo-engineering, surveillance, and robotic surgery.
Each of these technologies has a big impact on society, for good or ill. Wallach picks out warfare as one of the drivers of what he calls a “techstorm”, the torrent of innovation so fast, complex and untransparent that societies are in peril of losing – or rather ceding – control, of being swept away into a future that is unpleasant at best.
Take one technology being developed: lethal autonomous weapons systems, LAWS, that are “capable of initiating actions with little or no human involvement”, says Wallach. Here he is not worried about remotely operated drones, but rather about combat aircraft, such as Northrop Grumman’s X-47B prototype, that are capable of autonomous take-off and landing.
Such new weapons, he argues, should be debated by scholars, designers, policymakers and an informed public. Today’s arms control, however, is not an ideal blueprint for regulation. Instead, Wallach recommends setting up “governance coordination committees” to monitor technologies and liaise between stakeholders.
Such foresight, he stresses, must be undertaken at “inflection points”, windows of opportunity before a technology is deployed, to allow us to think through scenarios for its use (and abuse), and intervene if necessary. This need not endanger development of a technology since short-term drawbacks may be outweighed by benefits in the long run, and both must be anticipated.
Wallach and Markoff deliver sobering assessments of today’s engineering culture. Augment or automate? Seek-and-destroy robot or search-and-rescue rover? Far from being black and white, this choice is “a design decision that will be made by individual human designers,” Markoff says.
Thinking stuff through sounds like a no-brainer, but apparently it’s not, as Wallach underscores: “Many scientists and engineers do not believe that the ethical and policy challenges arising from their work is their problem.”
Neither alarmist nor affirmative, both books contain urgent, compelling and relevant calls to consciously embed our values in the systems we design, and to critically engage with our choices.
“Both books contain urgent calls to consciously embed our values in the systems we design”
Unless we design ourselves out, humans are part of any technical system that we commission, develop, use and hack. Don’t fancy a future of self-inflicted overcomplexity and unpredictability? Before welcoming our robotic overlords, read these books.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Gods of tomorrow?”