Rules Of The Road For Robots

When we drive in our cars, we mostly have a sense of common rules for the road to keep us all safe. Now that we begin to see driverless cars, there are similar issues for the behavior of those cars and even ethical questions.  For example, in June, the AAAS’s Science magazine reported on a survey of the public’s attitudes in answer to the story’s title: “When is it OK for our cars to kill us?

Driverless cars are just one instance of the gradual and continuing improvement in artificial intelligence which has led to many articles about the ethical concerns this all raises. A few days ago, the New York Times had a story on its website about “How Tech Giants Are Devising Real Ethics for Artificial Intelligence”, in which it noted that “A memorandum is being circulated among the five companies with a tentative plan to announce the new organization in the middle of September.”

Of course, this isn’t all new. About 75 years ago, the author Isaac Asimov formally introduced his famous Three Laws of Robotics:

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.

3.    A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws


Even before robots came along, ethics was focused on the interactions between people and how they should not harm and conflict with each other – “do unto others …”. As artificial intelligence becomes a factor in our world, many people feel the need to extend this discussion to robots.

These are clearly important issues to us, human beings. Not surprisingly, however, these articles and discussions have a human-centric view of the world.

Much less – indeed very little – consideration has been given to how artificial intelligence agents and robots interact with each other. And we don’t need to wait for self-aware or superhuman robots to consider this.

Even with billions of not so intelligent devices that are part of the Internet of Things, problems have arisen.


This is, after all, an environment in which the major players haven’t yet agreed on basic standards and communications protocols between devices, never mind how these devices should interact with each other beyond merely communicating.  

But they will interact somehow and they will become much more intelligent – embedded AI. Moreover, there will be too many of these devices for simple human oversight, so instead, at best, oversight will come from other machines/things, which in turn will be players in this machine-to-machine world.

The Internet Society in its report on the Internet of Things last year at least began to touch on these concerns.

Stanford University’s “One Hundred Year Study” and its recently released report “ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND LIFE IN 2030” also draws attention to the challenges that artificial intelligence will pose, but it too could focus more on the future intelligent Internet of Things.

As the inventors and producers of these things that we are rapidly connecting, we need to consider all the ways that human interactions can go wrong and think about the similar ways machine to machine interactions can go wrong. Then, in addition to basic protocols, we need to determine the “rules of the road” for these devices.

Coming back full circle to the impact on human beings, we will be affected if the increasingly intelligent, machine-to-machine world that we depend on is embroiled in its own conflicts. As the Kenyan proverb goes (more or less):


“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


The Internet Of Things Spreads And Raises Concerns

Although it’s not growing as fast as some people thought a year ago, the Internet of Things continues to be deployed.

we often think of the sensors and other aspects of the Internet of
Things being part of the management of large cities or industrial
enterprises, some of the most interesting developments have occurred,
but gone largely unnoticed, on the farm.

A few weeks ago, two articles about this appeared – “The Dawn Of The Smart Farmer: Sowing Sensors And Connecting Crops” and a blog by Steve Lohr (one of the NY Times very best technology reporters) “The Internet of Things and the Future of Farming”.

things that are being connected have, so far, been digital devices. But
the Korean company Naran is introducing a micro-robot, called the Push.
Any non-digital switch, like a light switch, can be controlled by this
nearby device, which in turn is connected to a small Prota computer that
tells the little robot when to turn the switch on or off based on a set
of rules set up by the user. There’s also a smartphone app for
preparing these rules or simply controlling the robot directly. 


Perhaps the greatest potential
of the Internet of Things is as a step to other ways of extending the
Internet. The University of Virginia announced a new way to use regular LED lights:

like using fiber optics to communicate – only without the fiber.
Imagine connecting to the Internet through the same room lights that
brighten your day. A University of Virginia engineering professor and
her former graduate student are already there… Their breakthrough means
that data can be transmitted faster with light waves using no more
energy than is already required to run the lights.”

Of course,
problems, like security, are always an issue, even in surprising
quarters. Vint Cerf, the unofficial father of the Internet and Chief
Internet Evangelist at Google, worries that the software behind the
Internet of Things has bugs. Last week, he publicly confessed that “Sometimes I’m terrified by it”.

Andy Greenberg of WIRED magazine has been particularly active reporting on these issues. In July, he wrote how “Hackers Can Disable a Sniper Rifle—Or Change Its Target”.


In July, starting with another article in WIRED,
the hacking of cars built by major American car manufacturers made big
news. That led to a recall that was a nuisance, a necessary nuisance,
for car owners.

On a more positive note earlier this month, another reporter at WIRED followed up with an article titled “Researchers Hacked a Model S, But Tesla’s Already Released a Patch
noting that the same Internet of Things which opened up a vulnerability
could also be used by smart companies to close those doors quickly.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved