Applying the laws of robotics to smart phones

September 13, 2012

The Three Laws of Robotics are a set of rules devised by the visionary science fiction author Isaac Asimov. In his books and stories these rules were introduced to ensure robots would serve the goal to maximize human well-being, serving their direct masters in the first place and secondarily any other human being. These rules read as follows:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Now that we live with robots it may, as Eben Moglen points out, be time to reconsider Asimov’s three fundamental rules. Our smart-phones and tablets organize our daily activities, tell us where to go, whom to talk to, what to eat, what to buy next and will soon augment (or adment) our reality significantly. At the same time, helping you is not all they do. While seemingly enhancing your life, they track your movement and eavesdrop on your conversations. They read your texts, messages, and emails and know every letter you write or receive. They analyze your Google searches and dissect your social networks. They combine all of your data and construct a profile of you, more detailed and precise than your best best friend or even you yourself ever could. While these profiles are purportedly used to enhance your life, in reality they will be sold to corporate marketers or made available to governmental surveillance agents

In other words, the benefits of a smart-phone enhanced world come at high cost, a cost that would surely constitute a “harm” in the sense of the laws of robotics.

Eben Moglen states that:

[…] visionaries perceived that in the middle of the first quarter of the 21st century, we’d be living contemporarily with robots.

They were correct. We do. They don’t have hands and feet. They don’t carry drinks. They don’t push vacuum cleaners.  (Although sometimes they are vacuum cleaners.)

Most of the time we’re the bodies. We’re the hands and feet. We carry them everywhere we go. They see everything, they’re aware of our position, our relationship to other human beings and other robots, they mediate an information stream about us, which allows other people to predict and know our conduct and intentions and capabilities better than we can predict them ourselves.

But we grew up imagining that these robots would have, incorporated in their design, a set of principles.

We imagined that robots would be designed so that they could never hurt a human being. These robots have no such commitments. These robots hurt us every day.

They work for other people. They’re designed, built and managed to provide leverage and control to people other than their owners.

[…] They take our money. They take our autonomy. They spy on us. And around the world, they result in our arrest, beating, torture.

This makes one wonder why the laws of robotics are not made mandatory for any “smart” technology.  It seems that most people are too busy glancing at shiny iPads or Facebook’s new timeline to realize the potential human costs and dangers that come with robot-like devices and platforms as such. 

Eben Moglen concludes as follows: 

Once your brain is working with a robot that doesn’t work for you, you’re not free. You’re an entity under control.

If you go back to the literature of fifty years ago, all these problems were foreseen. Many of us who grew up under the influence of those ideas, that we must make the technologies of freedom ahead of the technologies of control. Now we’re at the crucial moment. Human beings have begun to adopt technologies that control the details of our lives from the outside.

In order to truly enhance human life and help maximize personal and collective well-being, “smart” technology needs to be designed in a way in which these goals are immutably embedded right into the heart of their code. From a technological perspective, the implementation of coded imperatives like the Laws of Robotics is completely possible. The main obstacle to implementing such a change will come from those who are currently profiting from the the aforementioned threats to human freedom.

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