Humans Versus Robots... So Who Wins?

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In the classic Star Trek episode “I, Mudd” an android takes over the starship and whisks Captain Kirk and his crew to a planet filled with androids that won’t let them leave. After some investigating, Kirk and company find the android in control. To defeat the rogue robot, Kirk presents it with a simple paradox: he motions to a fellow prisoner named Harry and says, “Everything Harry tells you is a lie.” This is followed by Harry’s response, “I am lying.”

The resulting paradox causes the antagonistic android’s circuits to scramble, allowing Kirk and his crew to escape.

The idea of “man versus machine” may seem like a novel concept, but it has been a cultural touchstone for generations. From tall tales like the story of John Henry and his mighty hammer, all the way to 2015’s Oscar-winner “Ex Machina,” the idea of this competition between man and technology has been a staple of our cultural narrative.

One of the most acclaimed movies of this genre is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The director’s magnum opus is one of the first films to deal with the relationship between humankind and the things they invent, as well as one of the best ever received by critics and audiences alike; it’s not only a classic sci-fi film, but often placed as one of the best movies of all time (currently 22 on the American Film institute’s list of top 100 movies of all time).

“I saw ‘Space Odyssey’ a couple of times,” says Lloyd Kaufman, director and President of Troma Entertainment to BTRtoday. “I thought it was a masterpiece. Both on acid and off acid.”

“Wargames” is a classic movie about a young kid who faces off against a soulless computer, with the stakes set for nuclear annihilation. The protagonist, played by a young Matthew Broderick, is a hacker who gains access to the United State’s nuclear weapons program. In doing so, he tells the computer in charge of the US’s nuclear arsenal that the Soviet Union are attacking to respond–which could start World War III.

After seeing this movie, President Ronald Reagan asked his staff how realistically this could happen to the actual systems the United States used. According to the New York Times, General John Vessey Jr. told the president, “The problem is much worse than you think.”

Even today, hacking is incredibly easy. According to James Wicks, a cybersecurity executive currently working for Ticketmaster, it’s as simple as buying a device called a rubber duckie, write some very simple code, and plug it into a computer. Doing so opens up a remote shell (a way of using a computer on another network). “You control the computer from that point.” Wicks says. “It’s that simple.”

Humankind versus the computer isn’t just limited to movies. Books like Philip K Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and video games like Blizzard’s recent “Overwatch” contain themes that assess where technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence belong in a human world.

It’s a common trope among these stories that the protagonist out-maneuvers the technological menace they face off against–whether it’s using their wit, their brawn, or some combination of the two. And in today’s society, the war against the machine seems to be quickly approaching.

Robotics and artificial intelligence are becoming more and more commonplace. The military has been using drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, for reconnaissance and air support purposes. In an article in The Washington Post, David Petraeus, former director of the CIA, warned against the growing use of robots. “We really have to think through what is going to happen when we have the rise of robots,” Petraeus says in the article. “We’re facing a situation where machines with greater automation, advanced robotics and the rest, are going to take away jobs.”

Robotics go hand in hand with AI, and both can become dangerous if left unchecked. While robots can replace manual labor traditionally performed in factories, different forms of artificial intelligence, like the cloud-based software Blockchain, are now being used in sales and trading jobs on Wall Street.

How realistic is this threat, really? How likely is it that this technological singularity will spell the end for humanity?

“Unless they can create a framework for code that includes aspects like empathy and people that truly understand human behavior,” Wicks says, “code is black and white.” According to Wicks, it is this Achilles’ heel–this lack of understanding, context, and experience–that may be the root cause of rogue robots.

The hypothetical man versus machine conflict we see depicted in so many movies may not play out the way we expect. In fact, it is possible that the problem will flow in the other direction. As AI grows smarter and smarter, and robots become capable of more, it may well be that people will become the abusers in the relationship, and not the other way around.

If developments in technology lead to our smartphones and computers gaining sentience, will they be subject to the same “human” rights that flesh-and-blood humans are? Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, believes that consciousness may soon spring up from our computers, and if that happens, they may be deserving of rights. Ryan Calo, an ethicist and professor at the University of Washington, shares Sautoy’s sentiments, arguing that if a robot finds the desire to procreate or participate democratically, what right do we have to deny them?

The relationship between people and technology is nebulous at best, and as technology continues to develop, it may blur more and more. “If I just decided to haul off and slap you,” Wicks postulates. “How many ways can you respond to that? What is the proper response? If you can’t answer that as a human, you definitely can’t answer that as an AI.”

Perhaps the divide between man and computers isn’t so large after all.