Thursday, December 21, 2006

UK robotics report: why you should really read science fiction

As a proper geek-child, I was very fond of comic books and science fiction. I also took a typing class, which in my day was considered the province of secretaries. I never imagined both choices would prove to be so practical. A good lesson for our latest educational obsessions.

The value of my 1970s typing classes is, of course, now obvious. The value of my science fiction vice is having been long prepared for the latest news:
BBC NEWS | Technology | Robots could demand legal rights

.... Robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans, according to a study by the British government.

If granted, countries would be obligated to provide social benefits including housing and even 'robo-healthcare', the report says.

The predictions are contained in nearly 250 papers that look ahead at developments over the next 50 years.

.... The research was commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre.

The 246 summary papers, called the Sigma and Delta scans, were complied by futures researchers, Outsights-Ipsos Mori partnership and the US-based Institute for the Future (IFTF)....
Duh. Well, yes. If robots, or non-robots for that matter, become sentient they will acquire rights. The tricky part, which I wrote about in my Williams College ethics class in 1981, is how "rights" are afforded when one steps away from DNA. Does a severely retarded human child earn more "rights" than a genetically enhanced chimp? Does a super-sentient AI get more "rights" than the most brilliant, wise, handsome, rich, etc human? (My 1986 medical school ethics essay was about how those questions expose the degree to which morals and mores are a pragmatic compromise between ethical theory and the limits of human wisdom.)

Overall, I suspect the "Horizon Scanning Center" would have done as well to buy a copy of each the yearly "hard" SF anthologies printed since 1975, but it must have been great fun to work on the reports and I'd enjoy reading them. I hope they go online sometime.

I was struck, when I first heard this news on NPR, that the journalists were relatively sober. That's noteworthy. Ten years ago the chatter would have been flip, today there was only a hint of humor. These memes are infiltrating the human gestalt...

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