Saturday, July 2, 2011

Asimov's Laws of Robotics and Web 2.0 - Part 1

As any science fiction geek knows, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of short stories and novels about robots. He was more or less the first author to approach the topic seriously and he even coined the word Robotics, nowadays used for both scientific discipline and industry. The most famous aspect of his robots is the fact that they always have to respect the famous Three Laws of Robotics:

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

It is year 2011 and a lot of our every day reality depends on robots, even if we don't see or hear about them every day. Our cars are constructed by assembly lines consisted almost entirely of robots, we can buy a robot pet or watch one of these Japanese robots dancing or playing a violine. Heck, even this very blog post will be read, indexed and catalogued by a search engine (ro)bot.

In a way Asimov was right, unlike other science fiction predictions (flying automobiles, anyone?) we really do have useful robots. All right, they don't have positronic brains, but they do have semiconductor microchips. And they don't have Three laws built in. So, why don't our robots respect them, like Asimov's robots did? Wouldn't they be more useful or at least safer if they did? Unfortunatelly, at this time it is an impossible task. For example, how would we formally define the concept of "injure"? Also, not all injuries have to be inflicted willingly. A modern robot may crush a human by tripping over the edge and falling on him. Most modern robots can barely walk and hold objects. Making sure that they don't injure people by accidentally hitting them, let alone covering all possible meanings of injuring at this point in our technological development really is impossible.

Ok, but I also mentioned a software robot browsing the web. With software robots there isn't even a remote possibility that they might physically harm people. A simple fact - if a robot is incorporeal, it can't crush anyone's bones. This allows us to avoid the fundamental problem with implementation of the First law. The Second law can be easily implemented if we allow the robot to decide whether or not to obey the order based on human's authorization and permissions. Also, a robot should only be expected to do what it is programmed to, so an order to do something outside its scope should also be politely refused. The Third law is much easier to implement, since all it would require is that software bot gives its best not to crash and lose all its data.

So, we might try to adapt Asimov's laws into Three Laws of Software Robotics (changes emphasized):

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

I'll just conclude this article with an important note. Some of you may ask: "But, why bother? Why would anyone want to waste time on trying to make online software behave like robots from science fiction stories?". It's not about trying to make the present (formerly known as 'the future') like what we expected it to be when we were kids reading futuristic magazines. Ok, actually it is, but that is not the main point. :)

The thing is that the way Web is developing lately, with all privacy concerns, corporation conspiracy data miners, stalkers, pedophiles, etc. it may be necessary to address all these issues and try to stop web services from being harmful. Maybe we need all that software to be more Asimov compliant.

1 comment:

  1. they are looking for software robocop http://goo.gl/WMKD1

    ReplyDelete