09 May, 2007

The Universal Charter of Robot Rights.
OK OK, but some robots are ALIVE

"By the year 2020, I pledge that no robot will live in poverty": President Oprah.
Ho ho. But wait, there's more to this can of cyberworms than first meets the eye...

As usual, science fiction quickly becomes science fact: Isaac Asimov penned his “Laws of Robotics” in a spirit of literary creativity, but now we mere humans must consider them more seriously:

  • First Law: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Second Law: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In today's world the interfaces between humans, animals and computers are rapidly blurring. Since Asimov wrote his 3 laws, scientists have created roborats and roboroaches – rats and cockroaches with implanted brain electrodes which can be sent instructions via computer. These ‘remote-controled pets’ are almost mechanical in the way they work – they can be guided through mazes, instructed to climb stairs and perform specific tasks from over half a mile away.

Roborats and roboroaches can carry miniature cameras and microphones. The American cockroach (Perplaneta Americana) can carry 20 times its own weight (Hey, that’s fast food for you!) Microchips are surgically implanted after the roach has been anaesthetized and the wings and antennae removed.

Researchers claim this research will assist the rescuing of victims trapped by natural disasters, removal of land mines, and hope that the knowledge may help paralysed humans regain movement of their limbs. Also, like the trained dolphins already working for the Navy, there would doubtlessly be military uses - especially as roborats don't understand bribery (Who knows – maybe those dolphins already have implanted electrodes? The military would never tell the truth).

Rats rely partly on signals from their whiskers to detect obstacles. So when an operator transmits a tiny electrical pulse to certain parts of the rat’s brain controlling whisker sensations, the animal can literally be steered in any direction (I trust there is no “scuttle-under-the-fridge” command). To reinforce these false signals, scientists also send pulses to the pleasure centre of the rat’s brain if it obeys commands: the animals caught on quickly. As you do. Hmm, un-natural pleasures?

Roborats like this will do whatever their operator instructs – even actions which would instinctively be repellent to it (such as climbing trees or remaining in brightly-lit spaces. However, they are not total zombies – they retain their innate intelligence. When ‘steered’ towards an obvious threat or difficult obstacle, they instinctively flinch and recoil. They suffer stress. However, this reluctance can usually be overcome simply by upping the electrical voltage to the animal's brain.

This all raises obvious questions of ethics. Does it constitute abuse? The animals are not only deprived of the ability to make their own decisions, they get rewarded with a happy feeling after completing their task… an emotion not even their own. And today it’s rats and roaches, but what of tomorrow? Cats? People? After all, Blacks, children, women, foreigners, corporations, prisoners and Jews have all been regarded as legal non-persons at some time in history. We are on thin ethical ice here.

If designer animals are to be regarded merely as a cheap, destructible, and renewable resource for industrial or military espionage, then our own humanity is compromised, our dignity destroyed. Animals’ major rights – including their life – would be ranked below our relatively minor wants – our squabbles or business interests. Consider the cockroach crawling on the server room wall – it may just be after your lunch-box, but could be secretly video-taping your company’s website password. That would mean every non-human form of life would need to be exterminated from that room simply for security. Future Robot Liberationists will surely scream blue murder.

OK OK, so maybe my cockroach example didn’t wash …you’ve killed 3 cockroaches today already, right? But what if the extermination policy applied to these furry critters sitting innocently on the window-sill just outside the staff-meeting?
Or dogs? Or...

…or this non-furry critter?

...but on the other hand, sometimes outright euthanasia might have turned out better for everyone:

And finally: another can of cyber-worms oozes open when you look into the legal status of robots and computers in relation to ‘real’ humans. This is an amazing and disorienting link. It begins by suggesting that “discrimination based on the softness or hardness of the body parts of a synthetic organism seems as silly as discrimination treatment of humans on the basis of skin color”.
It costs about $50 to build a roborat. One day, inorganic robots may be able to reproduce themselves as cheaply and enthusiastically as today's ani-bots. The technology is still at a rootimentary level, though.

I can see it already: the Million Robot March.

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