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Here, I’d like to push the idea that as interesting as the technical challenges in making sentient robots like those on Caprica are, an equally interesting area is the moral challenges of making such machines. But “interesting” is too dispassionate—I believe that we need to begin the conversation on these moral challenges. Roboticist Ron Arkin has been making this point for some time, and has written a book on how we may integrate ethical decision making into autonomous robots.
Given that we are hardly at the threshold of building sentient robots, it may seem overly dramatic to characterize this as an urgent concern, but new developments in the way we wage war should make you think otherwise. I heard a telling sign of how things are changing when I recently tuned in to the live feed of the most popular radio station in Washington DC, WTOP. The station had commercial after commercial from iRobot (of Roomba fame), a leading builder of unmanned military robots, clearly targeting military listeners. These commercials reflect how the use of unmanned robots in the military has gone from close to zero in 2001 to over ten thousand now, with the pace of acquisition still accelerating. For more details on this, see Peter Singer’s ‘Wired for War’, or the March 23 2010 congressional hearing on The Rise of the Drones here.
While we are all aware of these trends to some extent, it’s hardly become a significant issue of concern. We are comforted by the knowledge that the final kill decision is still made by a human. But is this comfort warranted? -- Keep reading