Sunday, March 13, 2011

How Robots are Theatening Democracy

Robots will almost certainly become primary government tools in suppressing protests. This is a threat to your basic rights, and laws that protects these rights are desperately needed.

Here's a headline for you: "How the Terminator Could Play Peacekeeper." It is eye-catching and attractive. It also posits an interesting thesis: robots will begin taking a central role in "riot policing". In other words, due to advances in robot technology, robots will begin suppressing protesters around the world; they might soon be in a neighborhood near you!

InnovationNewsDaily editor, Jeremy Hsu, frames this new technology as a positive, interesting development that is slightly innocuous.  The article frequently mentions that these robots would have "non-lethal" weapons, like water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other tools intended to pacify protesters. What's more, "Future robots with clever designs might even be used to influence the mood of demonstrators, calming them or making them fearful."

Fearful protesters? This is undoubtedly good for society! 

Protesting is a Crucial Right

I am not going to continue to take cheap shots at an author who is mainly focused on the technology in this story rather than the implications. (He seems to have a lack of knowledge about why protests happen and why they are important.) However, the implications of riot policing robots are quite significant for society.

Why? Consider the following: as non-millionaire or non-billionaire citizen that does not hold a public office, you essentially have three ways to influence American politics. 1) Vote. 2) Lobby politicians. 3) Disrupt society.

Quick analysis of your options. (1) Is often only slightly consequential. You only have two choices in most cases, and after you make your choice, the politician often doesn't ask for your opinion. (2) is ineffective unless you organize into a large group. And if you organize, you must have both time and money in order to make any effect; after all, you're competing with the oil lobby! 

Often, people are only left to number (3): disrupt society -- i.e., protesting. Disrupting society is the most democratic right that you have as a normal citizen. Without the ability to disrupt, politicians and other powerful players would have zero reason to care about the public until election time.  

Regulation of Robotic Violence

Now back to robots. Taking the actual humans out of policing protests immediately makes the government endlessly more powerful. There is no bodily risk to police officers, so the state is investing less in suppressing protesters. Robots also feel no pain, so they can go into the "fray" with abandon. 

These "non-lethal" weapons which robots deploy are already overkill in many cases -- rubber bullets are quite violent. But when weapons are deployed by an object that does not need to use them for protection, it becomes more inhuman. 

To clarify: I am focusing on the suppression of peaceful protests here. Think civil rights movement of the 1960s or recent teacher protests in Minnesota. These disrupted society, but they were nonviolent. 

If a movement becomes violent, then one might be able to argue that the circumstance is now a "war", of sorts, between the government and protesters. It's a more complex question, and I won't get into it right now.

However, one thing seems clear: robots policing peaceful social movement endangers the most basic right that a person has -- defending their interests and rights in society. 

What is also certain is that robots will continue to development, and they will almost surely began policing protests. What is needed is not to fight the technological wave -- fighting such a wave inevitably fails. What is needed are new laws that specify how a robot can be used, with corresponding punishments for officials or law enforcement who use it incorrectly. Most researchers looking at or working on the future of robotics agree that this is something that is desperately missing from our political conversations in America and around the world. (This is detailed in books like "Wired for War".) We need to write law now that protects people from potential abuses from robots.


  1. Kevin - Did you read the Time magazine article about the "Singularity" approaching - - 2047 -- computers will have reached the time when they can reason and act as if they were human. It is proposed that the rapidity of computer changes leads to a time of convergence.It reminds me of the science fiction story. All world's computers were linked and the question was asked that has challenged mankind. "Is there a God?" And the answer was: "There is now.!

  2. Haha. Actually, the book I mentioned at the end of this article, Wired for War, goes on at great length about the Singularity. Within tech circles, it is *the* major issue of the future. Perhaps we should be enjoying our last years of freedom? IS the Matrix approaching?