Machine Morality and Human Responsibility

Charles T. Rubin in The New Atlantis:

ScreenHunter_16 Jan. 27 08.45This year marks the ninetieth anniversary of the first performance of the play from which we get the term “robot.” The Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. Physically, Čapek’s robots were not the kind of things to which we now apply the term: they were biological rather than mechanical, and humanlike in appearance. But their behavior should be familiar from its echoes in later science fiction — for Čapek’s robots ultimately bring about the destruction of the human race.

Before R.U.R., artificially created anthropoids, like Frankenstein’s monster or modern versions of the Jewish legend of the golem, might have acted destructively on a small scale; but Čapek seems to have been the first to see robots as an extension of the Industrial Revolution, and hence to grant them a reach capable of global transformation. Though his robots are closer to what we now might call androids, only a pedant would refuse Čapek honors as the father of the robot apocalypse.

Today, some futurists are attempting to take seriously the question of how to avoid a robot apocalypse. They believe that artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous robots will play an ever-increasing role as servants of humanity. In the near term, robots will care for the ill and aged, while AI will monitor our streets for traffic and crime. In the far term, robots will become responsible for optimizing and controlling the flows of money, energy, goods, and services, for conceiving of and carrying out new technological innovations, for strategizing and planning military defenses, and so forth — in short, for taking over the most challenging and difficult areas of human affairs.

More here.