What makes mechanical insects that can crawl through pipes? Mechanical spiders that can walk straight up the side of buildings? What makes robotic pack mules which can intelligently walk on four legs? What makes mechanical legs than can run better than a lot of real people? A company called Boston Dynamics. The controlling software is so effective that it’s positively creepy.
It’s not that anyone is actually going to use any gasoline powered mules to deliver supplies one of these days, but these demonstrators show how far applied robotics has come. National Defense Magazine says that the US needs smaller and more precise weapons. It’s not inconceivable that in the not so distant future a great variety of autonomous machines will be unleashed for all the good and bad reasons that men can think of.
The battlefield is likely to see hunter-killer robots right down to the smallest sizes. But its not all gloom and boom. The civilian economy will find robots doing work that “citizens won’t do”. Caterpillar is planning to develop autonomous heavy equipment. Robots that can serve as waiters, hospital attendants and couriers are being contemplated. Driverless cars are another possibility.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of the recent advances is a British government report suggesting that robots might be granted legal rights. Ronald Reagan was onto something when he declared “government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” When the welfare state gets ready to treat robots with the same superciliousness that it treats humans the “future” can’t be that far away.
The research suggests that at some point in the next 20 to 50 years robots could be granted rights. If this happened, the report says, the robots would have certain responsibilities such as voting, the obligation to pay taxes, and perhaps serving compulsory military service. Conversely, society would also have a duty of care to their new digital citizens, the report says. It also warns that the rise of robots could put a strain on resources and the environment.
Some forms of state would probably proclaim sentience in order to enslave it and do it in the name of the virtue too. But we knew this already. The bad news is that governments will employ many of the robots themselves. But we knew this too.