Ever been watching a film, and there’s a scene set on a battleship in which a huge robot gun shoots down an enemy plane? Well, that ain’t science fiction folks. That huge robot gun is called the Phalanx CIWS and it’s a current feature of every United States Navy surface combat ship, its job being to detect and act upon (read: totally obliterate) potential enemy threats. Elsewhere, the Israeli Iron Dome is a robotic defence system set up to intercept incoming Palestinian missiles, while over in South Korea the Samsung SGR-A1 robot border guard mans the demilitarized zone with deadly precision.
Now here’s the scary part. All of these technologies are capable of acting autonomously. Which means that once they have detected a perceived threat, they can respond to that threat with force without – at any point – being given the go ahead by a human being.
Why are we telling you about killer robots, you may wonder? Well, as part of Tuesday’s Campus Party line-up, Enternships went along to a talk by Mark Bishop, Professor of Cognitive Computing at Goldsmiths and general robot whizz kid. Entitled “Robots: Mechanical Bodies, Mythical Minds, Monstrous Dangers”, Bishop explained his views on the use of robotics in the military and how this relates to the murky notion of “Machine Consciousness”.
Like C3PO in an apron…
Forget the Fifties dream of a future in which bipedal, fully interactive robots would be a typical feature of the family home (C3PO in an apron, anyone?), Bishop is convinced robotics will never develop beyond a certain point because of one key reason: machines just aren’t capable of conscious thought.
Using American philosopher John Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument, Bishop explained how – despite the appearance of consciousness – a robot can never truly understand the processes it is undertaking. Just as, in Searle’s example, a non-Chinese speaker following a series of simple instructions can find himself, unknowingly, writing in fluent Chinese, a robot can be instructed by a series of computer scripts giving only the illusion of consciousness thought.
Jealous chairs. Suspicious DVD players. Wistful blenders.
And if that’s all too much for you to get your head around, Bishop concluded with the simple concept that, if machines are capable of consciousness, logically everything is. Just imagine that! Jealous chairs. Suspicious DVD players. Wistful blenders. Sounds terrifying.
Perhaps, though, machine consciousness is merely a distant reality, not an unthinkable one. Is it possible that what we think of as human consciousness is merely millions upon millions of tiny chemical interactions in the brain? Does this, by extension, offer the notion that at some point in the future, robotics technology will be sophisticated enough to develop a system that can comprehensively mimic every minuscule action involved in the human thought process?
Whatever the case, we came away from Bishop’s speech quite certain that autonomous gun-wielding robots on the battlefield are officially A Bad Thing. Without consciousness they’re mindless drones, and with consciousness…yep, we’re looking at a Terminator situation here.
Florence Vincent is a writer, playwright and robot aficionado.