Reservations about robots remain, but abundant benefits seen

Reservations about robots remain, but abundant benefits seen

23 Dec, 2021

Robot artist 'Ai-Da', described as "the world's first ultra-realistic AI humanoid robot artist" stands at the Great Pyramids of Giza, where she exhibits her sculpture during an international art show, on the outskirt of Cairo, on Oct 23, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

It is hard not to have some sympathy for the Egyptian customs officials who detained a human-like robot who arrived this month to take part in an art exhibition in the shadow of the pyramids.

The would-be visitor, named Ai-Da, has the face, body and eyes of a young woman, although her clunky bionic arms are perhaps the first clue that she is not entirely human.

The officials were particularly concerned about her camera eyes, which she uses to create convincing paintings but which they feared could also be used to operate as a spy.

Over 10 days, the issue was resolved and Ai-Da was released to display her artistic skills at the exhibition.

Despite her lifelike characteristics, Ai-Da is clearly not human. But what happens if advances in artificial intelligence technology render her robotic descendants indistinguishable from us? It's the stuff of many modern nightmares.

"People fear robots, I understand that," said her British creator, Aidan Meller. Moreover, he said the aim of his project was to highlight and warn of the abuse of technological development.

Use of robotics in industry, defense and other sectors is already an established and accepted reality. However, the prospect of the emergence of ever more lifelike and intelligent robots can be profoundly unsettling.

Even the developers of super-robots are aware of the natural fear of the machines one day taking over. Unveiling the prototype of a humanoid robot designed to carry out some of the boring and repetitive tasks currently undertaken by humans, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said this would not pose a threat.

"We're setting it such that it is at a mechanical level, at a physical level, that you can run away from it and most likely overpower it," he told an audience in August, although that "most likely" phrase might have left some of them less than totally reassured.

Musk has predicted that AI will overtake humans by the middle of the current decade. As a self-declared pioneer of so-called ethical AI, Musk has warned against the potential negative impact of the new technology. He once warned that AI might become "an immortal dictator from which we would never escape".

Many people will accept the benefits of current robot technology as an extension of the mechanical age. Machines that harvest crops, assemble products or vacuum floors provide tangible benefits, except perhaps to those low-paid workers whose jobs they are replacing.

In October, an Egyptian engineer revealed that he had developed an AI robot that could extract drinkable water from thin air, while an AI robot being rolled out in the agricultural sector can already distinguish between 50 tomato varieties and will only get better the more it practices.

So far so good. But what of robots that might copy other human characteristics such as empathy? Researchers at Columbia University in New York City say they have developed a robot that displays glimmers of empathy by learning to predict the future behavior of a robot partner.

Robot companions for the sick and elderly are being developed in the health sector to replace the soothing presence of the traditional nurse.

More worrisome, however, is the fact that some nations are developing robot armies, raising the science fiction specter of future robot wars. A developer in the United States has refined so-called robot dogs by arming them with sniper rifles, while the US Army recently staged a mock battle between robot enemies in what was described as a historic first.

At a more benign level, a so-called natural language chat bot, Xiaoice, has just had 139 of its Chinese poems published, although not all its human reviewers were impressed by the results. Aimless and superficial, lacking the inner logic for emotional expression´╝Źthis was the judgment of poet Yu Jian.

Despite such reservations, there is little doubt that robotics and AI are already delivering significant benefits to humanity, not least in the medical sector, where the new technology has helped to save lives.

Elsewhere, progress in AI promises to relieve humans of the burden of sometimes backbreaking work that might just as well be done by a thinking machine.

That, according to the tech pioneers, will free us up to undertake more rewarding tasks geared toward personal and societal development rather than wasting our days on the boringly routine. With thinking robots determining our big decisions, there might be more time to sit back and relax.

The problem is that if the likes of Ai-Da take over our art and Xiaoice delivers our poetry, and robots take responsibility for the care of our ailing relatives, what exactly will there be left for us to do?

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