Man vs machine: who controls the robots?

Sunday 18 October, 12.00 until 13.15, Cinema 2, Barbican Battle over Technology

From Metropolis through to recent hit film Ex Machina, concerns about intelligent robots enslaving humanity are a sci-fi staple. Yet recent headlines suggest the reality is catching up with the cultural imagination. The World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year hosted a serious debate around the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, organised by the NGO Human Rights Watch to oppose the rise of drones and other examples of lethal autonomous warfare. Moreover, those expressing the most vocal concerns around the march of the robots can hardly be dismissed as Luddites: the Elon-Musk funded and MIT-backed Future of Life Institute sparked significant debate on artificial intelligence (AI) by publishing an open letter signed by many of the world’s leading technologists and calling for robust guidelines on AI research to ‘avoid potential pitfalls’. Stephen Hawking, one of the signatories, has even warned that advancing robotics could ‘spell the end of the human race’.

On the other hand, few technophiles doubt the enormous potential benefits of intelligent robotics: from robot nurses capable of tending to the elderly and sick through to the labour-saving benefits of smart machines performing complex and repetitive tasks. Indeed, radical ‘transhumanists’ openly welcome the possibility of technological singularity, where AI will become so advanced that it can far exceed the limitations of human intelligence and imagination. Yet, despite regular (and invariably overstated) claims that a computer has managed to pass the Turing Test, many remain sceptical about the prospect of a significant power shift between man and machine in the near future.  As technology writer Oliver Morton has noted, the fascination with robots as ‘immigrants from the future’ tends to overlook the extent that they reflect the concerns and anxieties of its contemporary inventors.

Why has this aspect of robotic development seemingly caught the imagination of even experts in the field, when even the most remarkable developments still remain relatively modest? Are these concerns about the rise of the robots simply a high-tech twist on Frankenstein’s monster, or do recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence pose new ethical questions? Is the question more about from who builds robots and why, rather than what they can actually do? Does the debate reflect the sheer ambition of technologists in creating smart machines or a deeper philosophical crisis in what it means to be human?

Listen to the debate

Dr Robert Clowes
chair, Mind & Cognition Group, Nova Institute of Philosophy, Lisbon University; chair, Lisbon Salon

Professor Steve Fuller
Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, University of Warwick

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?

David Wood
chair, London Futurists

Martyn Perks
digital business consultant and writer; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation

Produced by
Martyn Perks digital business consultant and writer; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation
Recommended readings
Misuse of Artificial Intelligence 'Could Do Harm' K. Ahmed, BBC News, 16 September 2015

Why Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates Are Terrified of Artificial Intelligence James Barrat, Huffington Post, 4 September 2015

Would YOU have sex with a robot? J. Millner, Mail Online, 4 August 2015

How to Raise a Moral Robot B. Malle (Brown University), LiveScience, 2 April 2015

Stopping Killer Robots And Other Future Threats S. Baum, Bulletin, 22 February 2015

Is AI Dangerous? That Depends… C. A. Scharf, Scientific American, 13 February 2015

The robots are not taking over James Woudhuysen, spiked, December 2014

FutureProofing: The Singularity

Rohan Silva and Timandra Harkness discover how close we are to The Singularity - the day when machines match human intelligence.

Rohan Silva and Timandra Harkness, BBC Radio 4, 27 September 2014

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