Friday night topic: why the fear of autonomous machines?

— 4:36 PM on August 29, 2014

If you keep up with the news these days, you're probably regularly exposed to stories about "drones," killer robots, and the like. You may also have heard pointed philosophical concern expressed about what happens to everybody's jobs when the humanoid robots become widely available.

Seems like we have all agreed to devote a portion of our time to worrying about these things because, by gosh, it sure feels like we're living in the future.

Trouble is, I think it's all complete nonsense, for several reasons.

For one thing, the talk of robots' impact on the job market seems incredibly naive. This stuff already happened. Machines are everywhere now, crucial to the manufacture of almost everything and used widely in agriculture. They're just not, you know, usually shaped like people. The primary impacts of widespread automation appear to be increased living standards and the exchange of menial jobs involving physical toil for service-oriented positions.

Beyond that, robotic autonomy can't go very far with the current state of A.I., which is really quite primitive. Consider that the original goal of artificial intelligence was quite literally the creation of synthetic consciousness. Now we have to settle for useful but not-that-clever things like fuzzy logic algorithms that learn how to identify and sort objects. What progress we've made seems to be confined to limited domains, like basic robotic balance and navigation—and it's been hard-won, slow-moving progress.

The bottom line is that when a machine does something, there's a person or people behind it who are clearly responsible for its actions.

In light of these realities, I just don't see what we have to fear—other than, perhaps, scare words like "drone" replacing "RC helicopter" and causing gullible people to panic. On the substance, we seem to have concentrated an awful lot of media attention on a cluster of complete non-issues.

But perhaps I'm missing something, and we should all fear the change coming down the pike? If so, uh, why, exactly? Discuss.

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