Dr. Fred Eichelman: The Robots Are Coming For Us
For us oldsters the news about concerns over AI is nothing new and we have had warnings over the years thanks to science fiction writers, many of whom were scientists involved in the development of the first computers and AI.
Back in the thirties, serials featuring Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon often included a rather tinny looking robot designed to do harm. For young science fiction fans there were countless paperbacks and comics featuring a robot carrying off a young woman, though the picture may have had no relation to the actual story.
Some of your better science fiction writers did take the idea seriously as did Isaac Asimov who in a series developed the three rules of robotics, important because there were in his stories robots that were very human like. The rules were “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” As precise as these were there could be conflicts in which robots became more human taking on the worst of human characteristics.
Then in the fifties we had a spate of films, now classic in which robots played a major part. In The Day the Earth Stood Still Michael Rennie played a space man come to warn us that with the atomic bomb other planet civilizations feared we would become a threat. With him is a giant robot with the ability to destroy the Earth. The space man is shot by a panicked soldier and the robot begins a path of destruction. But the space man had befriended a young Earthwoman, played by Patricia Neal and she has been warned to say the words “Klaatu barada nikto.” These cause the robot to carry actress Patricia Neal to safety and to save the life of its master. I remember well as a school kid how many of us learned those words.
Years later I have the opportunity to interview Patricia Neal and she confessed that during the making of the film she had to prevent herself from laughing. Now she realized it was a classic, and more realistic than she thought then.
Robots appeared in many sizes and shapes in future films and TV shows. We began to accept that as our future. And it looks like that future is now. Current news shows run stories about robot dogs used by some police departments and robots taking orders and serving food in restaurants looking very human like. There is even now AI inventions that allow students to cheat in school. If assigned a paper on a particular subject AI will compose that paper for you and you do not have to do research.
Now we find some very influential leaders in science like the entrepreneur Elon Musk and members of Congress who are trying to get a major law passed to put on hold further development of AI. It makes sense as not all the robotic stories have good endings.
We were warned in the frightening Terminator series of three films. With the development of robotics it is inevitable that a robot state would take over the world and all of humanity that would be left would be small bands of human freedom fighters. We need to take a pause and remember the words of Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back.”