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    Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    Robot Revolution, When Not If

    The robot revolution has been a popular scifi theme for the last twenty years. In one form or another, robotic servants of humankind become more human-like, develop self-awareness and a survival drive, and act in ways their human masters didn't plan for. It's always presented as an "if" scenario, a distinctly fictionized story. It's likely more of a "when".

    In a previous post I pointed out how we'll definitely see robots in economic functions. Business decisions are always about the best value for the lowest cost and once robotics become commonly affordable it'll make the most sense to have humanoid robots perform tasks already in place for humans, using equipment already in place for humans. I linked to a documentary about how Japanese society is planning for its ongoing population decline by developing human-like robot workers, and this shows there are very real plans to place robotic servants in human jobs.

    Necessarily these robotic servants will have a human appearance, though people have even become attached to their roombas. It will make interacting with them more comfortable and alleviate some of the unease at seeing "mechanical" servants take over human jobs.

    Once you have a human-like being doing a human amount of work how long will it be until people start calling for equal rights? Animal rights protesters fight for the rights of non-human creatures. There will be loud, perhaps violent, counterarguments of robots being manufactured creatures and thus not "alive". However, as we've seen storytellers say in many robot revolution stories: if they think like a human, talk like a human, and act like a human, aren't they also human? It's not like they chose to be "mechanical", they were "born" that way. I don't think it's unfair to say this struggle will resemble the gay rights movement.

    Whether these robots have independent thought or not, it will surely be one of the rights we fight for. Determining the path of one's own life is a right we recognize extended to all human beings, and once robots are recognized as "human", we'll extend it to them as well.

    It's a sure thing there will be discrimination and any number of darker acts on the road to robot freedom. We can only hope that when the robots win their eventual freedom they don't hate us too much for the inevitable shit we will put them through.