New subject: robotic advances

From: Mike (
Date: Mon Jun 07 2004 - 18:33:22 MDT

Sorry to break the 1-week layoff, but this was too interesting to not
pass on:


The second ominous frontier is brain augmentation, best embodied by the
remote-controlled rat recently created at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn.
Rats are ideal lab animals because most anything that can be done to a
rat can be done to a human. So this robo-rat, whose direction of travel
can be determined by a human with a transmitter standing up to 547 yards
away, evokes a nightmare world of violated human dignity, a place where
Winston Smith of Orwell's 1984 isn't merely eaten by rats but becomes

Another troubling frontier is physical, as opposed to mental,
augmentation. Japan has a rapidly growing elderly population and a
serious shortage of caretakers. So Japanese roboticists (who have a
dominating presence at this Italian symposium) envision walking
wheelchairs and mobile arms that manipulate and fetch.

But there's ethical hell at the interfaces. The peripherals may be
dizzyingly clever gizmos from the likes of Sony and Honda, but the CPU
is a human being: old, weak, vulnerable, pitifully limited, possibly

Frontier number four is social: human reaction to the troubling presence
of the humanoid. Sony created a major success with its dog-shaped Aibo,
but the follow-up may never reach consumers. The new product, known as
the Qrio, is technically good to go and would be hopping off shelves in
the Akihabara district right now - except for one hitch. The Qrio is a
human-shaped, self-propelled puppet that can walk, talk, pinch, and take
pictures, and it has no more ethics than a tire iron.

In his 1950 classic, I, Robot, Isaac Asimov first conceived of machines
as moral actors. His robots enjoy nothing better than to sit and analyze
the ethical implications of their actions. Qrio, on the other hand,
knows nothing, cares nothing, and reasons not one whit. Improperly
programmed, it could shoot handguns, set fire to buildings, and even
slit your throat as you sleep before capering into a crowded mall to
detonate itself while screaming political slogans. The upshot is that
you're unlikely to be able to buy one anytime soon.

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