Prathapan Bhaskaran turns the spotlight on the future of robotics and AI

Remember the highly successful Terminator sci-fi thriller series?

Russian Fedor is a fearsome machine that can learn new tasks including firing guns.

Five movies have so far been made under this iconic Hollywood franchise since 1984 and an as yet unnamed sixth is in the forge, scheduled for 2019 launch. The Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer is about how Skynet becomes a world-spanning synthetic intelligence in a universe dominated by cyborgs, short for cybernetic organisms. The story is woven around the attempts of this time-travelling ‘intelligence’ to wipe out the human race which it decides is dangerous to the planet.

There was sudden interest in Terminator (and even the 2004, Alex Proyas directed, Will Smith starrer I, Robot) when recent news reports said Facebook shut down an AI (artificial intelligence) project after the chatbots that scientists were experimenting with began developing their own code for conversation. The news reports must of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt because Facebook itself later clarified the experiment was not closed because of this ‘chatter’ between bots, but for other reasons. Its experts termed the news reports merely alarmist.

Robots of precision
Robotic precision has increased so much robots can do minute surgeries.

However, AI has entered modern human living in an emphatic way with computers learning all the time and modifying responses on the basis of such acquired information. Think of all the thousands of bots parsing information from websites and displaying advertisement on websites based on people browsing habits? They are basic forms of AI activity. The role of AI will keep increasing in a world of self-driving vehicles and smart-learning computers. But the allusion to Terminator and other dystopian sci-fi flicks has been triggered by other developments, mostly in the military field. Reports say that as early as 2001 the US defence experts decided it would have more robots than humans by 2030. Many aerial and underwater drones that US forces uses already have some amount of autonomy in conducting reconnaissance or engaging targets. Boston Dynamics has developed much advanced quadraped robots that can walk around without losing balance, climb steps, negotiate slopes and roughest of terrains.

Unmanned vehicle
From aerial unmanned vehicles to overland vehicles that can do complex tasks, armies the world over are increasingly using robots.

Russia has not lagged behind much, unveiling (so to speak) Fedor, a fearsome battlefield-ready ‘metallic man’. Dmitry Rogozin, Vladimir Putin’s deputy prime minister, sometime back tweeted the video of FEDOR shattering shooting targets with deadly accuracy with guns held in both arms. It may sound much like videogames but apparently Russia is planning to prime them for battle fronts as well as space. The words Rogozin tweeted with the video captioned ‘Russian fighting robots – guys with iron nature’ were somewhat ominous: “We are not creating a Terminator, but artificial intelligence that will be of great practical significance in a lot of spheres.”

Obviously, various militaries also use a large number of unmanned, practically autonomous vehicles that can operate in a range of conditions that are inimical to humans. Many military powers are locked in an expensive silent race to develop network centric or autonomous robotic machines with most destructive power. Whether they acquire humanoid form or not they are intended to be fearsome and lethal.

Handyman robot
Handyman robots can be trained to work on factory floors.

Human warriors’ predominant replacement by killer machines will mark a fundamental change in the philosophy of warfare. War presupposes infliction of unacceptable pain on enemy armies and populations in order to subjugate them. The necessity of involving humans on the ground putting own troops in potential danger will always be a restraining factor on regimes intending to march on another nation. Democracies have always been subject to such pressures because any occupation of a foreign land without a definite exit plan would result it the incumbent government suffering a sweeping defeat in the next election. Dictators may not have to defer that readily to popular sentiment. But even they come under pressure from prolonged strain of occupation of a foreign land.

Hagel and Tousley
Giving human and animal shape to robots adds to the intrigue about AI machines.

Robotic warriors will definitely reduce the number of humans directly involved in field operations. This will raise the pain threshold of people of occupying nations resulting in longer interventions and exploitation. Vast armies of machine warriors will thus result in more conflicts across the world and longer occupation.

This does not sound good for world peace.