Are you average in every way, or do you sometimes stand out from the crowd? Your answer might have big implications for how you're treated by the algorithms that governments and corporations are deploying to make important decisions affecting your life. "What algorithms?" you might ask. The ones that decide whether you get hired or fired, whether you're targeted for debt recovery and what news you see, for starters. Automated decisions made using statistical processes "will screw [some] people by default, because that's how statistics works," said Dr Julia Powles, an Australian lawyer currently based at New York University's Information Law Institute.
Human beings begin to learn the difference before we learn to speak--and thankfully so. We owe much of our success as a species to our capacity for moral reasoning. It's the glue that holds human social groups together, the key to our fraught but effective ability to cooperate. We are (most believe) the lone moral agents on planet Earth--but this may not last. The day may come soon when we are forced to share this status with a new kind of being, one whose intelligence is of our own design. Robots are coming, that much is sure. They are coming to our streets as self-driving cars, to our military as automated drones, to our homes as elder-care robots--and that's just to name a few on the horizon (Ten million households already enjoy cleaner floors thanks to a relatively dumb little robot called the Roomba). What we don't know is how smart they will eventually become.
Seventy-five years ago, the celebrated science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published a short story called Runaround. Set on Mercury, it features a sophisticated robot nicknamed Speedy that has been ordered to gather some of the chemical selenium for two human space adventurers. Speedy gets near the selenium, but a toxic gas threatens to destroy the robot. When it retreats from the gas to save itself, the threat recedes and it feels obliged to go back for the selenium. It is left going round in circles.
The fully programmable Nao robot has been used to experiment with machine ethics. In his 1942 short story'Runaround', science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov introduced the Three Laws of Robotics -- engineering safeguards and built-in ethical principles that he would go on to use in dozens of stories and novels. They were: 1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. Fittingly, 'Runaround' is set in 2015. Real-life roboticists are citing Asimov's laws a lot these days: their creations are becoming autonomous enough to need that kind of guidance.
When science fiction author Isaac Asimov devised his Three Laws of Robotics he was thinking about androids. He envisioned a world where these human-like robots would act like servants and would need a set of programming rules to prevent them from causing harm. But in the 75 years since the publication of the first story to feature his ethical guidelines, there have been significant technological advancements. We now have a very different conception of what robots can look like and how we will interact with them. The highly-evolved field of robotics is producing a huge range of devices, from autonomous vacuum cleaners to military drones to entire factory production lines.