I think about the future a lot. Okay, that’s a lie — I think about the future all the time. I place the blame on the vast quantity of science fiction books I read during my formative years. But it really has been the highest privilege imaginable to watch the future unfold right before my eyes these past twenty-three years, even if it hasn’t always happened quite as we imagined it would. And the best part is, it’s a privilege that never ends! Just looking at what’s on my desk right now, I have 500 GB of storage in a hand-portable format. Take that back to just one decade ago and no one would even believe it.
The encroachment of the future upon the present has been occurring at an accelerating rate, too fast for any single person to keep up with it all. Take any given scientific field — only the experts in it are even aware of all of the groundbreaking research, while people outside that field are entirely clueless (witness the recent unfounded public backlash against the Large Hadron Collider, for instance). This lag time between initial discovery and general synthesis of knowledge isn’t getting any shorter, even as new inventions continue coming along at a breakneck pace. It’s a recipe for severe discrepancies between disparate areas of knowledge.
One area we haven’t normalized with scientific progress yet is ethics. Our legal system, for example, is built entirely around the assumption that humans are the only intelligent actors. Harm inflicted against humans is thus either caused by other humans (whether intentionally or not), by accident, or by nature. The latter two do not merit punishments (though in some cases compensation is awarded), while the first category is dealt with mainly through punishments that are geared to work on people, such as incarceration. But as computers continually grow exponentially more powerful according to Moore’s Law, the categories begin to break down.
Look at the case of Robert Williams, an automotive factory stockroom worker who in 1979 became the world’s first robot fatality when a robot’s arm, entirely lacking in any sort of safeguard, smacked into him at full speed, killing him instantly. The courts (rightfully) considered that robot as a simple tool, and the jury found the robot’s manufacturers negligent and awarded Williams’ family $10 million. Even today, robot fatalities are dealt with in the same manner: they are either declared to be entirely accidental, or the manufacturer of the robot is found to be at fault. They have yet to find the robot itself, acting intelligently and on its own, to be at fault. Read the rest of this entry »
Read the rest of this entry »