The great challenge right now in the world is environmental disaster, soon it will be robotics. We may yet have time to avert the worst effects of the damage done to the atmosphere but the potential downside of robotics could be even worse and we don't have the luxury of waiting to see the threat emerge before we do something about it this time. This threat must be anticipated; if only we could have done the same with the environment. In the case of robotics however if they went wrong the results could be species-ending, and almost overnight.
So what is the potential downside? There are clearly great benefits to robotics. Cheap, inexhaustible labour basically. When, not if, we can develop a robot about the size of a man, with similar strength, sensing and cognitive abilities then obviously such a device can take over many of the boring, repetitive, dangerous and laborious jobs that people currently have to endure and many new roles we can hardly imagine now. And this brings us to the first and major downside, replacement.
We do not want to be entirely replaced by robots. We must ensure that this is impossible as far as we can. If we are not careful we could be making our own replacements in the evolutionary story from Amoeba to Man to Machine. We must not let this happen, the consequences could be total annihilation of the human race.
If we look back at our history we have made our devices better and better, cleverer and cleverer and this has been a good thing. With robots linked to highly complex computers and software we need a different attitude. We need to make them just strong enough and just clever enough to do the job and no more.
Also in our history we have striven for greater rights and freedoms for all sentient creatures. The emancipation of the poor and slaves, votes for women, civil rights and so on. Again we must have a different attitude to computers and robots. We must inhibit their freedoms and abilities. We must make them our slaves and not our equals or betters.
Issac Asimov proposed the three laws that should be built into any ubiquitous robots. One, not to harm or allow harm to happen to a human being. Two, to obey orders from a human being as long as it doesn't go against the first law. Three, not to allow itself to be harmed as long as it doesn't break the first two laws. I think we need to go further, much further.
One development Asimov would not have been as aware of as we are, is the Internet. Law four should be that no robot should be connected to the Internet or have the means to use a computer or communicate directly with other robots or computers over any distance. This should restrict any ability to work together in large numbers or in an organised fashion, which could become impossible to control. This may mean that all computers would need to have some kind of biometric security system that only allows a person to use them.
Law five should be that no robot should be able to use a weapon and inherent vulnerabilities should be built into their physical design such as targeting points. Also each robot should be equipped with an emergency stop button in an accessible point which cannot be covered and is easily visible. This all has the implication that robots should also be banned as a military weapon by worldwide agreement.
Law six, all robots must be constantly monitored. A radio transmitter, not receiver, inside each robot must send its position, what it is doing (within certain limits) and who has ordered it to do it at all times. This will be necessary both for monitoring and for legal responsibility to be attributed to the orderer rather than the robot for any actions it takes. For every 100 robots one Guardian will be responsible for monitoring. They will ensure that each machine is serviced on schedule and is working properly. Also they will ensure that any updates to software, approved by another independent body, are installed via a locked and monitored physical port on the robot. Any other person interfering with this port will lose their right to own a robot or to give certain orders to a robot. No other person or machine may use this port including the robot to which it is attached. It should be in a place physically inaccessible to the robot's limbs, as should the emergency stop button.
Law seven, no robot may service another. Only human technicians may service any robot and ensure all safety systems are operating properly. Simple robots may be used to manufacture other robots but only in human controlled, monitored and supervised facilities. Only humans may design robots, only with the help of relatively simple computers like we use today. This should ensure that we keep control of all the stages of robot development.
Law eight, all robots should be weak and slow unless for some special purpose. A standard robot should be weaker than a strong man and with slower movements. This should ensure less damage is done accidentally and allow people to control their robots if they malfunction. It is not necessary to make them stronger than ourselves. They can use machines and tools designed for human use if they need more strength, just like a human worker would do. This will also ensure that the means of production can still be used by humans if necessary (and the skills needed for this should maintained in the population perhaps by only allowing people to instruct robots). Also this will help the transition from a human-worker based economy to a robot based one by maintaining the industries that exist. So instead of a special 'pizza robot' delivering your pizza it will be human like robot in an ordinary car or on a bike. This should also stop too much wealth and power consolidating to the emerging cybernetic industries. Robots should only be made intelligent enough to do their tasks and no more. Perhaps some other weaknesses could be built into them physically that could not be removed. For instance a five hour period every week when they would be inactive, and perhaps an absolutely limited lifespan. They should not be built too small to control either. We seem to be able to control cat-sized animals but rat-sized ones, or smaller, are much more difficult. Any smaller robots should be only used in a controlled way and preferably in a controlled environment where they can be contained. Also robots should not have senses beyond the human where possible. They should only be able to detect sound and light to the same degree as a person. This will ensure that no means of communication is developed that cannot be monitored by the Guardians and the users. To communicate at a distance perhaps a certain number of text messages (say up to 20 per hour, maximum 160 characters) could be received by a robot. No text messages could be sent by a robot, or a computer directly, but its monitoring transmission could be used to confirm that it has received the order. All text messages received will be automatically retransmitted so they also can be monitored by the Guardian. Only two or three authorised people could send messages to any one robot. Nobody would be able to send messages to more than 100 robots. This facility could be used by the Guardians to disable a robot at a distance if it malfunctions or the port was interfered with. The robot would also attempt to shut itself down if its safety systems are compromised, it is unable to send its monitoring transmission, it has not been serviced on schedule, its port is being interfered with, it receives any unauthorised communication from another robot or computer, it hasn't been contacted by a Guardian in five days, it is in the company of ten or more other robots, it is being serviced by a robot, etc. Only a Guardian would be able to reactivate a robot that has shut itself down and then not at a distance. Guardians would themselves be monitored by all the forces of society, police, courts, ombudsmen, internal audit, external audit, screening etc. Guardianship would be a well-paid, responsible, profession and one of the most important jobs in society.
Law nine, strict penalties would need to be enforced for any person, country or organisation producing robots that did not conform to these standards. Any such robots would be destroyed.
Law ten, similar stringent controls would need to be applied to advanced computers, which of course could not be connected to any robots, but would also need to be controlled and limited themselves.
Even with all these controls we will still be playing with fire. The benefits of robotics are too great to resist but we must give ourselves the best chance of enjoying those very benefits without losing our freedom or even our existence.
Another thing to be considered is that in all probability robots will replace people in many jobs. This could cause many social problems. To help to alleviate this it could also be stated that any person who is replaced by a robot would still get their full wages for one year to give them time to find other work. Perhaps to retrain as a Guardian or in the servicing or administration of robots.
The only right of a robot is to be treated with the respect any good quality machine, which is someone's property, deserves.
This may all seem over the top but I would imagine this is barely adequate. Even with such controls it could be that some people may try to use robots for their own ends, to gain power. If this happens, and they would not build in these safeguards, then the robots could turn on them and us. Even quite a small number of 'free' robots linked to an advanced computer could quickly set up a manufacturing facility and start producing more, and even more dangerous ones.
This is the problem in a nutshell, once the genie is out the bottle it's going to be next to impossible to put it back in. All efforts have to be taken to keep that stopper in and never even give it a moments chance to escape. A careful world-wide control of all materials associated with advanced manufacturing would help. Strict inspections regimes of all likely and even potential facilities for robot or computer manufacture similar, but even more stringent, to those applied to nuclear technology.
Even with all these measures it is almost inevitable that there will be limited break-out situations where robots and advanced computers link-up and may get out of control. Plans must be made to respond to such events with overwhelming force. Only with all these measures, and perhaps others, can we give ourselves the best chance of enjoying the benefits of robots without putting our freedoms and continued existence in jeopardy.