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Robots, Nature and The Singularity: The Rise of the Machines and the Fall of Humanity


October 30, 2014
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War & the International Forum on Globalization

Why do humans build robots? The history of human automatons. The construction of robotic wildlife in an age of extinction. The development of military robots and the approach of the Singularity -- when human bodies and minds are surpassed by artificial intelligence and machines.

Special to Environmentalists Against War

Robots, The Warriors Of The Future
The Daily Conversation



(August 25, 2014) -- Warfare is going through its most significant change in human history. This is an in-depth look at how robotics is increasingly preventing soldiers from rich nations from dying in battle.

Robots, Nature and The Singularity
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War
From a speech at the Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth Teach-in at New York's Cooper Union, October 25-26, 2014


NEW YORK (October 25, 2014) -- Facsimiles of the human form – the essence of art -- arose in response to the realization that life is ephemeral, that bodies age and people die. The human mind and the opposable thumb provided a form of solace by making it possible to create images of life -- something that could survive beyond death. Yet, there have always been those who wanted to go beyond simply painting or sculpting images from nature. They wanted to "animate" their facsimiles.

Robots have existed -- in fact and legend -- throughout human history. The Greek god Hephaestus was credited with creating talking mechanical "handmaidens" and a bronze warrior named Talos. Aristotle predicted robots might someday replace human workers, thereby eliminating the scourge of slavery. In 1206, the Muslim inventor Al-Jazari built what may have been the first programmable humanoids -- a quartet of mechanical musicians that performed aboard a boat during "royal drinking parties."

Leonardo da Vinci arguably built the first "self-driving car" and left behind blueprints for a mechanical knight that could sit up and wave its arms. In the late 1770s, a Swiss watchmaker built astonishing child-sized automatons (containing as many as 6,000 parts) that could write, draw and play piano.

These first robots were activated by water, weights and hand-wound springs. The Industrial Revolution brought us robots powered by coal, oil and electricity. In 1928, a British inventor created a robot powered by a twelve-volt motor. Western Electric followed in 1939 with Elektro, a towering aluminum-skinned giant that could move, speak and smoke cigarettes.

In 1996, MIT built the world's first RoboTuna and Honda introduced its first humanoid robot. The year 2000 saw the debut of Honda's ASIMO, a childlike 'bot that could walk, dance and carry on conversations. In 2004, Cornell University crossed a "red line" by creating a robot capable of self-replication. (In Japan today, there are entire factories filled with robots busily building other robots.)

As natural life on Earth inexorably succumbs to a Sixth Extinction, robot researchers (mainly men between the ages of 20-40 driven largely by Pentagon funding) are busy creating Neo-Edens of mechanical wildlife – robot snakes, fish, dolphins, sharks, horses, hummingbirds, houseflies, cockroaches and mosquitos. Who knows? As the natural world falters under the press of machines, we may leave behind nothing more than a world populated with humanoid automatons and faux-bio replicants.

It is probably no accident that it is men who seem obsessed with artificial life. This preoccupation may stem from "Womb Envy" -- the recognition that, in nature, it is women who bring forth life. This male obsession with creating life in the Lab rather than the Womb, has been called The God Complex. (And, yes: thanks to the grand march of masculine science, human embryos have now been successfully grown in artificial wombs.)

Artificial Life
Some of the scientific "breakthroughs" expected in the next few years threaten to make cloning and xenotransplantation seem benign. At least when scientists plant a spider gene in a goat or insert pig cells into a human brain, they are dealing with all-natural ingredients. Here are a few examples of some current bio-bot experiments.

* As part of his Project Cyborg, University of Reading Professor Kevin Warwick implanted microchips in his body allowing computers to remotely monitor his movements and open doors at his approach.

* The Pentagon is working on brain implants that would empower soldiers to remotely control military robots.

* Living cockroaches have been equipped with micro-electric backpacks that allow them to be remotely steered and used to transmit TV images back to distant spy centers.

* US scientists have built a robotic fish guided by the brain of an eel and have implanted bio-fuel cells in snails to turn the animal's glucose into electricity.

* British scientists have built robots that that use Microbial Fuel Cells to power themselves in the wild by feeding on the bodies of living creatures.

* Fox News famously reported that the Pentagon's Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (dubbed the EATR) powered itself "by gobbling up whatever organic material it can find – grass, wood…, even dead bodies." (The Pentagon's Maryland-based contractor rushed to assure the public the EATR was a strict vegetarian but not before the National Post wryly noted: "Artificially intelligent, self-fueling killing machines: What could go wrong?"

Warbots
Nazi Germany sent the first robot into battle in WWII when it deployed "Goliath," a crawling remote-controlled bomb tethered to an electric leash. This four-foot-square IED-on-treads could drive right into an enemy bunker before exploding.

In 2007, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) introduced a new Goliath-like weapon in Iraq. The Special Weapons Observation Remote Direct Action System (aka SWORDS) was a ground-based, radio-controlled killer droid fitted with video eyeballs and an M249 light machine gun. During their first deployment, however, the SWORDS droids reportedly turned their weapons on US forces and the experiment was abruptly cancelled. (The Pentagon continues to deny this.)

The first Predator drones were launched during the Balkan conflict in 1995 and were subsequently armed with supersonic Hellfire missiles.

While a Predator drone is about the size of a schoolbus, the Pentagon's current arsenal also includes small-scale warbots. Some are designed to look like and fly like birds. The Sandia National Laboratory has built a remote-controlled fly-bot that weighs one ounce and is smaller than a dime. Equipped with a TV scanner, microphone and a chemical micro-sensor, the micro-bot ostensibly exists to protect "US military and economic interests." Some spy-bots resemble flying dominos and can be released in swarms to infiltrate entire neighborhoods. They can follow targets down streets and slip through open windows and doors. Some can quietly sneak up behind a victim's head before triggering a lethal explosion.

Robotic Boots on the Ground
Because they rely on tires, treads or tracks, "ground-based" drones are limited to relatively flat terrain. But a machine with robotic feet can roam practically anywhere. In 2004, DARPA and Stanford University created a gecko-like "Sticky-bot" that can climb vertical walls and perch on ceilings for surveillance and spying.

Big Dog -- a four-legged, gas-powered metallic beast built by Boston Dynamics -- can navigate mountainsides and frozen lakes while carrying 400 pounds of weapons and supplies (four times more than a human soldier could carry).

A UC Berkeley research team has created a "force multiplier" called the Human Universal Load Carrier (aka the HULC), a mechanical exoskeleton that can be strapped to the human body to endow the wearer with superhuman strength.

So we already have robot-like humans. The next step is human-like robots -- with skeletons of steel, titanium bones and microprocessor smarts.

Reasoning robots now under development use artificial neural networks to learn -- the same way humans do. Capable of out-thinking homo sapiens, they can detect emotions and even infer hidden motives. In other words, they can guess when a human is lying to them.

In South Korea, Samsung robots have replaced human guards on the border with North Korea. When these robots detect the approach of a human, they demand a password. If they don't hear the correct answer, they can open fire automatically.

DARPA's ultimate professed goal is to "take the 'man' out of 'unmanned' warfare." This means building warbots with the capacity to make their own decisions about who to kill. That takes us beyond the Artificial Life boundary and into the realm of Artificial Intelligence. And this promises to mark a critical "alpha barrier" -- a point at which a single new discovery can radically transform all future technological innovations.

A US Joint Forces Command study predicts deployment of fully autonomous battlefield robots by 2025. And, sure, like humans, these super-strong, super-smart warbots will occasionally make mistakes and kill innocent civilians. But, unlike humans, they won't experience guilt or suffer PTSD.

Campaigns to Ban Killer Robots
On November 21, 2012, the Pentagon issued a 15-page directive describing an autonomous weapons system that "once activated, can select and engage targets" without human supervision. But the Pentagon had already taken steps in 2005 to build a $130 billion Robot Army. The Future Combat Systems program -- the largest military contract on record – was designed to replace human soldiers with mechanical Terminators (at one-tenth the cost). Eliminating humans from the combat workforce would save billions in combat pay and veterans benefits. The Navy, meanwhile, has already developed prototype missiles and ships that can "seek out and engage the enemy" without human oversight.

There is resistance. In 2009, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control announced a coalition Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. In May 2013, a UN report called for a temporary ban to prevent a robot arms race noting that: "Tireless war machines, ready for deployment at the push of a button, pose the danger of permanent… armed conflict."

Gordon Johnson, of the US Joint Forces Research Centre, has no qualms about unleashing killer robots on the world. As he told the New York Times: "The lawyers tell me there are no prohibitions against robots making life-or-death decisions."

The Singularity
And finally, there's the Singularity -- the point at which living humans merge completely with technology. Our minds meld with our machines, our minds transcend our natural bodies, we become immortal. The nonprofit Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence believes "the technological creation of computer-assisted super-human intelligence" will produce "an immediate, worldwide and material improvement to the human condition." Others are not so sure.

In his book, The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicts the final merging of "biological" and "artificial" intelligence will lead to computers that are "conscious, feeling beings deserving of the same rights, privileges and consideration people give each other…. There are profound dangers," Kurzweil warns, but "I don't think we can stop it."

Asked how bad a Post-Human world might be, Vernor Vinge (the originator of the Singularity concept) concluded: "Well... pretty bad. The physical extinction of the human race is one possibility." When the Singularity occurs, Vinge says, it could happen "in the blink of an eye -- an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control.... It will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far.... Even if all the governments of the world were to understand the threat and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue."

Tesla founder Elon Musk recently observed: "I don't think anyone realizes how fast artificial intelligence is advancing." The collective fear is that "super-intelligent machines" could become so smart that they might conclude -- quite logically -- that human beings are a threat to planetary survival and respond by destroying all human life.

How is that for an irony? The impulse to build robots to escape the biological noose of death could lead us to create a technological guillotine that might lead to human extinction.

In his book, Macroshift: Navigating the Transformation to a Sustainable World, Ervin Laszlo argues that industrial civilization is "destined to disappear" without a profound and rapid Macroshift "from economic globalization to a new and sustainable civilization." Instead of "conquest, colonization and consumption," future survival will require "connection, communication and consciousness."

Meanwhile, we face a hard truth: Our technology has created problems that can seemingly only be solved by more technology. Case in point: the Fukushima meltdowns. It is impossible for any living thing to enter the broken reactors and attempt to contain the damage. So the order has gone out: "Send in the robots."

With our divided brains physiologically locked in an endless Left-Right contest between Logic and Emotion, between Reason and Intuition -- between Technophilia and Naturaphilia -- we would do well to recall the words of Albert Einstein:

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant."

And let us heed the consul of psychiatrist Iain McGilchris:

"We have created a society that honors the servant but has forgotten the gift."

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