Ethical Robot Killers

April 12, 2009

predatorThe news that the military is working on killer drones that will operate autonomously was in the news again recently. Y’know, like none of us have seen this coming. Or that entire movies franchises haven’t been built off of this plot. Is anyone really surprised? The military, of course, is talking about how such machines will be programmed with a set of robot ethics, so that they don’t get in trouble for killing the wrong people, or say, someone trying to surrender. We all trust the military, right?

Jamais Cascio addresses the issue more concretely with a draft set of his own Laws of Robotics. These are a good start, noting both that humans are ultimately responsible for robot behaviors and actions and that we need to consider that robots are going to increasingly become more *like* humans. Also of importance is that these robots will also be programmed in accordance with dominant social customs and norms:

Law #2: Politics Matters
The First Law has a couple of different manifestations. At a broad, social level, the question of consequences comes down to politics–not in the partisan sense, but in the sense of power and norms. The rules embedded into an autonomous or semi-autonomous system come from individual and institutional biases and norms, and while that can’t really be avoided, it needs to be acknowledged. We can’t pretend that technologies–particularly technologies with a level of individual agency–are completely neutral.

These are not just issues and concerns that we should be applying to those in power. Increasingly, robots and drones will be proliferate and become accessible to others — including anarchists. If a tech savvy anarchist insurgency was to employ its own drones, say to assassinate capitalist leaders or sabotage corporate or military facilities, these issues will also need to be considered and addressed in a careful and principled manner.

Quick Links 2-11-09

February 11, 2009

Why the recently announced Singularity University falls short:

For an institution that claims to be “preparing humanity for accelerating technological change,” it sure seems to be spending a lot more time talking about nifty gadgets than about the connection between technology and society.

Also worth checking out is George Dvorsky’s roundup of the ensuing debate.

A look at the x-risk posed by human super-intelligence and abuses of power/authority:

If the first intelligence-enhanced human is smart enough to rise to power in a country with a large military and nuclear arsenal, then expansionism can begin under the guise of whatever rallying call of the week is expedient.

An interesting little rant …

Every health problem, mental or physical, will be treated in light of the person’s genome, which will be part of a person’s medical record. Drug doses will be determined genomically because different people can have greatly varying sensitivities to medicines. Almost any medical recommendation may be tailored to the sufferer’s genome.

His fear is that, when a citizenry has no sense of the horrors and true cost of war, they will choose to go to war like any other policy decision, “weighed by the same calculus used to determine whether to raise bridge tolls.”

If the early adopters don’t go crazy and/or use their newfound abilities to turn the world into a totalitarian dictatorship, then they will concisely and vividly communicate the benefits of the technology to their non-uploaded family and friends. If affordable, others will then follow, but the degree of adoption will necessarily depend on whether the process is easily reversible or not.

The purpose of the Seasteading Institute—and of this gathering—is to figure out how to make aquatic homesteads a reality. But Friedman doesn’t just want to create huge floating platforms that people can live on. He’s also hoping to create a platform in the sense that Linux is a platform: a base upon which people can build their own innovative forms of governance. The ultimate goal is to create standards and blueprints that can be easily adapted, allowing small communities to rapidly incubate and test new models of self-rule with the same ease that a programmer in his garage can whip up a Facebook app.

We are just now witnessing the beginning of what is surely going to be a huge wave of self-sufficient communities, enabled by the new modes of production made possible by the Internet and communications technologies. The prospects for this are enormous for everyone, but especially those in poorest and most dependent places on Earth.

Cowell says there is now “a self-imposed moratorium on ‘wetwork’”, or all synthetic biology experiments, until researchers can show that what they are doing is safe.

this makes it easy to build a complete UAV for less than $500, which is really kind of amazing. As exciting as that it is, it’s also sobering to know that a technology that was just a few years ago the sole domain of the military is now within the reach of amateurs…

In open source warfare, an insurgency’s strength grows through a proliferation of groups with a similar high level objective:  a weaker nation-state.  The question becomes:  how is this proliferation achieved?

“Our adversaries are constantly watching what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re adapting and drawing insights and they’re going to make us fight this different kind of war. This manual is not a solution for Iraq or Afghanistan, but it will prepare Soldiers and Marines for where we are going in the future and the enemies we will face.”

As 2009 opens, our financial institutions are deep in massive, irrational panic. That’s bad, but it gets worse: Many other respected institutions have rational underpinnings at least as frail as derivatives or bundled real-estate loans. Like finance, these institutions are social constructions. They are games of confidence, underpinned by people’s solemn willingness to believe, to conform, to contribute. So why not panic over them, too?

robot.jpgPart of the anarcho-transhumanist project needs to be identifying crisis points. Capitalism periodically goes through episodes of upheaval, times when the contradictions inherent in capitalism become appallingly clear, the system breaks down, and the opportunities for class struggle and social change are elevated. Many of the technologies that transhumanists discuss — elevated lifespans, genetic modifications, molecular assemblers, etc. — are certain to spark some of these crises. If we want to see these technologies used for liberatory rather than oppressive purposes, we need to prepare to take advantage of these crisis points and attack while the capitalist system is weak.

So which of these accelerating technologies is going to wreak major havoc first? Life extension is likely to be slow development — aside from potential tensions over the rich having access to better healthcare first, we won’t truly feel the impact of longer lives until the elderly overload our social security infrastructure — if that happens. Widespread development/adoption of molecular assemblers is certain to shake things up, but that seems likely to be at least a few decades off.

Let’s look at robotics. This is a technology that is already becoming widespread, whether we’re talking Predator drones, heart surgery bots, or robotic nurses. As robotics become more widespread, we’re looking at a serious shift in how capitalism operates.

Over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Marshall Brain says:

I firmly believe that the rapid evolution of computer technology (as described in Robotic Nation) will bring us smart robots starting in a 2030 time frame. These robots will take over approximately 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy over the course of just a decade or two. Something on the order of 50 million people will be unemployed. See Robotic Nation for details. The economy may adjust and invent new jobs for those 50 million unemployed workers, but it will not do so instantaneously. What we will have is a period of economic turmoil. All of those unemployed workers will be in a very bad spot. The economy as a whole will suffer from this turmoil and the downward economic spiral it causes. No one will benefit when this happens.


In the past, increases in productivity have meant higher wages and reduced hours for workers. Today, worker wages are stagnant. Most of the money from productivity improvements flows to the wealthy, creating a gigantic Concentration of wealth. Robots will turbocharge the concentration of wealth and leave tens of millions of workers in poverty.

Robotics are a potential powder keg of class conflict. It goes further than this, however — robots may also become a catalyst of state conflict. As the folks over at Communist Robot (who are capitalists-cum-technocrats, despite the name) put it, capitalist countries need to worry about socialist/communist countries beating them at their own game by successfully taking advantage of robotic workforces first:

A Capitalist economy is not fit for autonomous robot industrialization. A Communist economy however is perfectly suited for the implementation of a fully robotic workforce. In a Communist economy the government controls industry and wealth distribution to insure that everyone is afforded basic amenities. Communism exists as a response to the disproportionate wealth distribution of industrialized nations and functions better as an idealist philosophy than an actual economic system because it lacks the incentive of riches and glamour that compel development through Capitalism.

Robots will change all of this.

Robots topple the infrastructure of Capitalism by displacing its most valuable asset: the common worker.

Robots will empower Communist countries by lifting the burden of labor from their social structure and granting greater opportunities for education and scientific exploration.


It is of the utmost importance that Capitalist nations develop autonomous robots before a Communist country does because if a Communist country implements a fully autonomous workforce before Capitalism is ready for it, the Capitalist economy will be flooded with goods manufactured for free by the Communist nation. This surplus of extremely cheap goods will wash away the Capitalist financial system making its economy crumble to the ground. A Capitalist human labor force is no match for Communist robots.

Let’s not forget that we will increasingly see robots play a role in policing, border patrol, and military duties. After all, robots have the benefits of not being bribable, they don’t complain about long hours or work conditions, and they don’t stir up anti-war sentiments by coming home in flag-draped coffins. So not only will robots be taking our jobs, but they’ll be used to keep anyone who protests or rebels in line. This means that robots themselves will increasingly be seen as the problem — rather than capitalism.

But are robots the problem? Over at Phoenix Insurgent, we are warned that anarchists should oppose robotics:

As class war anarchists with a deep critique of technology, we should oppose robotics in general. It’s applications have already and surely will continue to parallel the class and bureaucratic structure of society, empowering the elite to make and remake the working class at will.

In another article, PI also warns:

No matter what use this tech finds, it will surely be a reflection of the narrow technocratic class that created it and the capitalist and political/bureaucratic class that funds, develops and deploys it. Such technologies, developed in that environment, cannot help but serve those masters. There is no way they can be used properly. Their flaws are in their development.

This argument is wrong for several reasons. While capitalists absolutely will use robotics to concentrate their wealth, this does not mean that in the long run robots won’t be advantageous to society. The reasons why should be obvious: robots can take on tasks that would be dangerous or tedious to humans, they can handle some tasks with more efficiency and less environmental impact than humans, and they could free up our lives for more creative, leisurely, and interesting endeavors. The solution to the problem of a robot taking over a wage slave’s job isn’t to get rid of the robot — it’s to get rid of wage slavery. We absolutely should take advantage of robotics to increase human happiness and prosperity — the question is how to use the conflict created by robots to help us get to a free society.

PI also makes the argument that, as a tool created by capitalists, robots can never have liberatory uses. This is the crux of the primitivist argument against technology — that it is never neutral, and is always tainted by the authoritarian structures that create it. They forget, however, that the street has its own uses for things. We are already seeing insurgent groups such as Hezbollah use drone attacks against Israel. What’s to prevent hacktivist guerrillas from using homemade, stolen, or hacked drones to disperse radical propaganda or facilitate clandestine communications? To make surgical strikes against police agencies or critical infrastructure systempunkts? To surveil, document, and broadcast police abuses and government crimes? To defend radical centers or even assassinate prominant politicians? Should drastic social change be achieved, why wouldn’t we make use of robots to improve our quality of life?

Let’s not lose sight of our goal: the radical transformation of society. The spread of robotics technology certainly has the possibility of making things worse and creating a crisis within capitalism. So let’s start preparing now for how we can take advantage of this — without being reactionary about it. Robots aren’t the enemy — the capitalists that use robots to exploit us are. Our aim should be to undermine capitalism and the use of robots to encourage inequalities — and to subvert such technologies for our own, emancipatory uses.


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