Are robots the future? The prospects of artificial intelligence

Are robots the future? The prospects of artificial intelligence

Sergio Romano | Historian, journalist, author and Italian diplomat
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The use of new technologies in war has often opened its doors to the advent of innovations in the everyday life of the most developed societies. The presence of robots will become increasingly evident, and this already poses regulatory problems of an ethical and moral nature that will soon be resolved, given the speed at which the world of advanced technologies is moving

The recent death of Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, which sold a few million copies in the 1970s, reminds us that it was the time when futurology became one of the favorite exercises of scholars and intellectuals. However, the risk of forecasting error is always very high. Even when there are economic and technical conditions ripe for a particular discovery, it is not uncommon to find that laboratories suddenly abandon one subject to focus on another. The reason is almost always economic, as discoveries are generally costly and the choice of a goal  can depend on the amount of money available. Although highly motivated by their own interests, scientists often end up discovering what is requested by a lender.

The main factor of technological innovation is war

The factor that has most influenced our existence and which has radically modified our traditions is war. The "patrons" that enable great changes are very often the military policies of governments and armed forces. The development of civil aeronautics would have been much slower if the air force had not, in the two wars of the twentieth century, made great strides. We would not have built the first computers if intelligence services had not needed a large calculator to decrypt codes. We would not have conquered space, with the cascade of resulting inventions, if the missile had not been a World War II weapon and the Cold War had not channeled resources to space research. We would not have the internet if the US armed forces had not needed an extensive and rapid "command and control" network.
Are there currently other areas in which war can produce equally important contributions? The most interesting areas are automation and artificial intelligence. Since its first appearance in literature and cinema, the robot has stimulated our fantasies and occupied our dreams. Research on the construction of humanoids began several years ago, and one of the most promising laboratories is that of the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. There are already products on the market scheduled for relatively simple functions -  for example, vacuum cleaners and machines for cleaning swimming pools. However, the next generation’s leap forward will likely be due to the military use of robots. Drones hit enemies from the sky and are vulnerable, but their pilots are situated beyond the ocean and wear a white coat. There is no other weapon that so plastically represents the features of an asymmetrical war in which western power should, as far as possible, prevent the deaths of its own soldiers, but which often hits, along with the target, those who are unfortunately nearby. No less controversial is the robot-bomb with which the Dallas police killed an African-American former soldier who had killed 5 policemen, purportedly to revenge the many black youths killed by the American police in previous months.

Automation poses legal and moral issues

The major advances in automation will likely be in the field of communications and transport. The route of an aircraft or ship is already governed by a computer. How much time will be needed before cars will not need a driver? Of course, it will be necessary to prepare the artificial intelligence of a car to deal with all of the situations that may occur along the way. In their book Umani e Umanoidi: Vivere con i robot ("Humans and Humanoids: Living with Robots"), Roberto Cingolani and Giorgio Metta, scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology, write that there is a fundamental difference between man and robot. A man has qualities (elasticity, strength, deformability and relativity) that allow him to "develop strategies to adapt the body, in real time, to its needs, situations and changes, greatly reducing the need to calculate what it needs to do each time."  In the robot, on the other hand, the brain is separated from the body and "an intelligence that directs a body is something very different from a synergistic body and mind." Alongside the technical problems, there is a need to face legal and moral issues, to write codes that grant the owner of a robot the responsibility for its errors, to change urban planning and to resolve the plight of all those who will be made redundant due to automation. In the late eighteenth century in England, workers destroyed the mechanical structures that were "stealing" their work. The phenomenon was known as Luddism, named after a young man (Ned Ludd) who had set the example, and it recurs regularly on the occasion of other innovations. Will we see Luddism appear against robots? How would we react to the use of police robots to restore order?