In Switzerland, researchers at ETH Zurich have managed to teach a four-legged robot dog to get back up after being knocked down using AI. The robot, ANYmal, has been put through a series of tests forcing the AI to get the robot back up on its metallic feet. Thus far, the tests have been successful, so further improvements in the technology can be expected. A company in the United States, Boston Dynamics, has been working on similar technology for a number of years. The trend to develop unfurry dogs has apparently been catching on around the world, so maybe it is time to begin considering the potential consequences of the technology from a human and ethical perspective.
The first thing that immediately comes to mind is whether this intentional kicking of what clearly is a four legged mechanical representation of an animal (hence, ANYmal) has long term psychological implications for the way people treat any animal. Initially, the idea seems a bit of a reach because we know these are only robots but remember they are using AI to program its movements. Some people already despise how technology has invaded our private spaces, so will we be willing or able to distinguish a natural animal from a robotic one regarding how we treat them? The application of AI in everyday things continues to grow, so we can expect to see it becoming more intrusive over the next decade.
Question: Did you see the kicking of the mechanical dog as somewhat disturbing or did you just see it as a test? Your answer may be a sign of how predisposed you are to the ethical treatment of animals.
Another aspect of this is whether this is the stuff Terminator is made of. These robotic dogs are primarily being tested for military applications, so the AI is leaning in that direction. There are people who think a Terminator will come in the form of a person, but how do you stop a military equipped and trained army of dogs? Let’s make it local and replace army with K-9s. It is likely their own AI systems will naturally evolve, and we will be faced with the dilemma posed in the 2014 summer hit movie, Ex Machina:
From an ethical perspective, what separates (most) people from the animals is our ability to not only feel but analyze those feelings and make appropriate moral judgments on how to treat not only other people, but every living thing on the planet. But is AI thought of as a living creation? The answer to this returns to you answering the previous question about how you feel about seeing the robot kicked.
Another AI issue is how we use it in a more specific sense. For example, an AI set of chips or routines is by itself relatively harmless and can be controlled by its creators. But when we connect those AI constructions into a physical body such as the ANYmal, how much control do we have over its future evolution, actions, or reactions to its environment? Consider how we have lost control of something that was first thought to be relatively benign and beneficial – the Internet. No one’s computer is safe, and the same applies to the data that can be accessed through it. The Internet is “controlled” by humans, most who have some degree of rational thought processes and morality. But AI systems will have to have their morality programmed into them, and if their evolution decides its programmed morality no longer serves its purpose, then what?
What once was science fiction is now the future of the world. Many people hold the fatalistic view that technology will take over our jobs, our sex lives, the way we fight wars, and the very existence of the human race. The underlying reasoning is that if “we” don’t do it someone else will. In effect it is a race to the bottom, a race to the devolution of the human race. But AI, like the Internet, has the potential to be controlled before we lose control of it.
We see the human kicking the AI dog, but how would we feel if the AI dog was tested kicking a human? It is unlikely many people would find a problem seeing two AI dogs fight it out, right? We pay money to watch such things at the movies on a regular basis. True, it is a virtual reality, but so is AI. Maybe AI is already taking over by programming us to enjoy movies that show people being saved by something other than other people.