Autonomous robots pose undue risk

Autonomous robots pose an undue risk to humans and human activity.

To see what is meant by this statement, an autonomous robot helping to perform an operation contributed to the death of a patient on an operating table in Britain when it knocked the hand of an assisting medic at a critical phase in the surgery. Whilst the robot did not make the fatal moves that ultimately led to the patients death a few days later, it was considered to have contributed.

I believe that medical procedures being done on humans are too valuable to have robotic assistance for a number of reasons, the one above being just one:

  1. Could a robot be programmed to tell minute differences in what is being operated on, such as for example the space between a piece of embeded shrapnel and something important like an artery
  2. Would robots have a broad enough understand of human language and interactions to not misinterpret something and subsequently behave in a way surgeons or other specialists might not anticipate
  3. In a time pressured situation such as someone losing much blood and the bleeding needing to be quickly stemmed, could a robot react in time or understand the urgency

The medical profession would be wary of any robot technology that cannot be over ridden by a human being since artificial intelligence is not (yet!) able to distinguish situational issues with the clarity that would be necessary to be an effective tool. But there is a bigger problem. Da Vinci – as the one in the article was known – and like robots will only be as good as the humans who designed them and work with them.

Another example of dangerous autonomous robots are the development of military robots. These will have the ability to determine themselves who to kill. Britain is thought to be funding the development of such weapons.

Both ethically and legally this raises very serious and immediately potent questions about the sort of military weapons that should be developed. Legally it enters a part of the Geneva conventions that is very grey and which has not been a priority for politicians in terms of overhauling. Ethically weapons that develop an operational mind of their own is highly improper at best.

Even if the drones are securely controlled and operated under strict parameters, there is also always the risk that cyber hacking could break into the drone and make it go rogue. In a politically charged environment where cyber attacks are frequent there is no such thing as a cast iron guarantee that such technology will be secure.

New Zealand politicians are perhaps 15-20 years behind on their understanding of technology and the ethical and legal challenges its applications pose. This is a rather broad statement, but also one that has serious truth to it. Therefore it is highly unlikely that they have given thought to the potential hazards of killer drones and the short comings of robots in a surgery environment – though admittedly in the latter, the robot is clearly supposed to be helping in a procedure that ultimately makes the human better.

Will our politicians get with the times before technological best practices in New Zealand start involving robots in situations where the human is not necessarily in control?

Technology regulation in New Zealand needs overhaul

Many of you might have watched Terminator movies when you were kid. For those deprived of what was essential viewing for my generation, they were about the remnants of humanity versus intelligent machines created by Skynet which posed a threat to the human race. These movies were science-fiction at its finest. But 30 years after the first one, killer robots are not so far fetched now as we thought.

It is not just killer robots – more on that later – but also the misuse of drones, which have many practical military and civilian uses, around airports and the rise of the sexual robot that have raised concerns. A mixture of security, ethical and safety issues have arisen at a speed that New Zealand politicians seem to have been caught flat footed.

New Zealand politicians have been slow to catch on to the growing threat for example posed by the use of drones and lasers around airports. Not a month goes by without drones and/or lasers being implicated in a potentially dangerous act that could have brought down an aircraft. A few weeks ago drones held up or forced the diversion of aircraft at Auckland Airport for over an hour. Other instances have included interference around Christchurch Airport by people with lasers.

Whilst progress is being made in tackling the interference of aircraft by people wielding lasers, this is not the case with drones. In the case of lasers, criminal prosecutions have been brought against several people, which has sent a message that this is criminal activity that can be traced.

Drones pose a bigger risk. They can be made to hover for long periods of time, move randomly with the pilot having no chance to react in time and their physical mass is large enough that it would cause substantial damage to a plane. Coupled with the restrictions placed on aircraft flight paths around airports, the potential to cause a major civil aviation incident is very real.

It is time to ask questions of how appropriate sexual robots are. These are predominantly female gendered robots that imitate sexual favours being performed. As robots have no concept of ethics, given the just alarm over sexual violence, how appropriate is it for a person to act out their fantasies on a robotic being that cannot say no or physically reject inappropriate conduct. Without appropriate checks on what sort of functions a robot can and cannot perform, is technology lending itself inadvertently to some of the darkest and most dangerous of control over a human being?

But the most dangerous robotic menace are potential murder drones or killer robots that might open fire or otherwise use lethal force against a human being. The artificial intelligence race means that robots with a degree of humanoid intelligence already exist. This is not just a concern of mine, but a concern of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Numerous countries are already calling for a ban of such technology and point to the certainty that rogue states such as – but not limited to – North Korea might get hold of it and would be most certain to use it against rivals.

Overhauling regulation does not necessarily mean bringing in a raft of new laws, although that will definitely be necessary in dealing with some types of technology. It might well be that existing laws are fine, but just need updating. In the case of drones for example new regulations will be necessary, including licensing, fines and operating compliance with the Civil Aviation Authority rules.

Drones: A doubled edged sword

You see them hovering above events. The real “eye in the sky”, remotely controlled by someone nearby. Your friends might have one, or you might know people who use them for work purposes – or been unlucky enough to have a prying one hovering over your property.

Welcome – for better or for worse – to the world of drones.

I do not know anyone personally who owns a drone. I have wondered occasionally about the pros and cons of having one.

Let me be clear. Drones certainly have their uses. Civilian construction contractors often use them to view safely structures or dangerous terrain when working on projects. When the demolition phase of the Christchurch recovery was in progress drones were very useful for flying into and around buildings that were too dangerous to approach on foot. This also included houses in Scarborough, on the cliffs overlooking Redcliffs as well as other Port Hill suburbs.

Recreational users also find them popular. One example is a clip taken at Lake Coleridge at the end of Intake Road, gives a perspective on the Lake Coleridge power station intake that cannot be gained from foot access due to the safety hazards posed by the intake and it being in a fenced off area.

Drones also have military uses – and abuses. Surveillance of ones territory is one thing; using one to deliver lethal force is quite another (and a particularly concerning grey area of international law).

Civil Aviation Authority requires that all drone operators comply with their code for controlled devices. It does not matter whether you are a recreational user, civil or other user, there are certain things you can and cannot do.

Given that there are concerns about drone users who do not think about or have malicious intentions when they fly drones over private property, people who have not consented to being filmed and so forth, I believe a certification process is required. It is not that I believe drone use should be limited, but it is important to know and respect the fact that improper use of a drone can constitute serious criminal offending for which consequences are inevitable.

The concerns are justified. As the use of drones increases so will the likelihood of them being found in improper locations. The likelihood of of one endangering traffic, humans or aircraft due to being flown in circumstances where they should be grounded will increase.

And this is shown by the cases that occasionally appear before the Courts, in which drone users are charged because they put their craft in the way of helicopters or aircraft on legitimate business. One such case recently was a tourist who was made to forfeit his drone after flying it in front of helicopters trying to fight a scrub fire. He knew that it could potentially cause a crash. He had no reasonable explanation for his actions. Others have been prosecuted for flying their aircraft into flight paths of oncoming aircraft ranging from single seat private planes through to commercial passenger jets.

I am also aware of a couple of cases a few years ago where drones were seen hovering over peoples properties without their permission. One gentleman mentioned a drone hovering outside his place whilst his wife was home. Others mentioned concerns about users flying them overhead whilst children were playing. None of this is okay and breaches the C.A.A. rules. It also represents an unacceptable privacy invasion that no one should have to accept.

The number of drones is going to continue to grow as newer models come into the market and prices fall. So will the risk of improper use. I support a certification process for drones. Anyone over the age of say 16 should be permitted to buy one, but not before they get a certification to demonstrate they understand and agree to comply with legal obligations set down by the C.A.A. and other authorities. Repeated failure to comply should require forfeiture of the drone and of your certification.

Hazards of a computerized world

Sometime ago I watched a movie on T.V. called “I Robot”. It was about a time when robots did human office jobs with three rules to keep humans safe. However a detective becomes concerned that not everything is as it seems when the founder of U.S. Robotics is thought to have killed himself. He enlists the help of a robot and finds that a humanoid robot murdered him, and in doing so discovers a sinister conspiracy to enslave the human race to robots.

Call it what you wish, but I think I Robot raises some interesting, if not slightly disturbing questions about the extent to which we should rely on robots. But it also touched I thought on a deeper question about how much faith we should put in computers. Because without doubt the threat of cyber crime, cyber terrorism and possibly cyber violence – where machines commit acts of violence because the computer controlling them has gone rogue.

In the world of Star Wars, where droids perform all sorts of functions as manufacturing clones, being guards at military installations, serving as the flight mechanic in the starfighters and of course being C-3PO and R2D2, flashes of a mechanized world can also be seen. I particularly remember one incident where Admiral Ackbar and Commander Wedge Antilles have a disagreement about over whether the Commander, who wants to move his squadron somewhere after an exhausting operation is told to rest or a droid will be ordered to sedate him. Whilst I don’t see droids taking the place of nurses in the immediate future, it did raise an interesting question about the ethical issues that would arise should this ever happen.

Much more immediately though there are two particularly concerning cases that have come to my attention about instances of automated transport not going as it should. One involves a car and the other an aircraft.

The self driving car may sound great in theory, but does the potential for the computer controlling one to be hijacked or go rogue without reason raise any concerns? They should.

Does the potential for the computers on board an airline to go rogue cause you any concern as a passenger? It should. A case has already happened with a Q.A.N.T.A.S. flight where the computer suddenly stalled the aircraft sending it into a potentially catastrophic plunge for several hundred feet not once but twice in a matter of minutes. Yes, it is true that millions of people fly totally safely every day around the world. It is true that aviation is the safest form of transport by a long shot. Still, if a computer controlling an aircraft can go rogue on its own, what could it at the hands of a cyber hacker or if the aircraft has no manual over rides?

The potential for cyber hackers either acting on their own or at the directive of a Government or terrorist organization to take control of vital data systems and websites was graphically demonstrated last weekend. A ransomware bug called “Wanna Cry” was set loose by hackers and it struck 100 countries over about 48 hours. It takes computers hostage and threatens the owner with the loss of their files unless they comply with demands. To recover their files in the case of Wanna Cry, several hundred dollars worth of Bitcoin currency to a specified address. To ensure it was not dismissed as a joke full recovery was only possible if the specified demands were met within 3 days; partial recovery could be enabled by typing the word decrypt in like this: <decrypt> or full recovery by paying the specified amount.

And also, do we want to end up like the Simpsons do in one episode (or maybe it is the movie), where they move to a house where nobody has to do anything – it is all done for them by robots? Having literally all the time each day to do whatever you wish might seem great, but the Simpsons came to regret it.

Drones: the good, the bad and the ugly

To the tech nerd they are possibly the new craze on the block. Anyone who has seen a drone in the There is no doubt that the use of drones will continue to increase. So too will the applications for which they are used. Most applications will be perfectly legitimate and some even beneficial. But there will also be applications for which drone use must be frowned upon. So, taking a play on the title of the movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, how do drones stack up?

The Good

Anyone who has been in Christchurch involved with the demolition of unstable buildings or ones in tricky to reach spots where foot access may not be practical, the use of drones to ascertain the layout of the property and identify hazards might well be the safest and easiest option. With a camera and live data stream back to the operator, its ability to quickly get an overview in real time and relay the data ensures that not only can the operator see what is going on, but can refer back as necessary.

I first saw a drone with absolute clarity when the Christchurch Police Station was imploded at the end of May 2015. Hovering overhead at about 70 metres, with its owner on the roof of an adjacent building it was one of several used to record the very public felling, watched both in person and on the internet by thousands of people, thanks to its data stream.

The bad

Unfortunately there are a few users out there who are likely to have malicious intents. There will also be a few out there who have not considered privacy issues, or not thought about the hazards of launching drones around facilities such as airports where public safety could be jeopardized. These are the users who need to be cautioned before they break the law or wonder why someone tried to down their drone. Most will comply, but the ones that do not should have their machines confiscated.

The ugly

Drones also have military uses. Whilst some of the uses might be good, such as conducting surveillance over large areas of territory, drones have been implicated in some very questionable attacks in the so called “War on Terrorism”. These attacks have stemmed from attempts to liquidate senior Islamic State officials as well as al-Qaida militants among others. In doing so they have exposed a very grey area of international law in terms of assassinations and invading other nations air space. But more tragically drones have murdered innocent people. Wedding parties have been an unfortunate but common target. No one has been charged with anything yet and the U.S. military says the orders come from senior military officers or the C.I.A.

And a cautionary tale

However, there are privacy issues that go with remote controlled drones, whose operator cannot be seen. In the week just ending Domino’s pizza announced it was working with the Government to develop a drone that could deliver pizza’s to a person’s door. Although this might seem economical to Domino’s as it would avoid having to pay staff to deliver the pizza’s by foot, serious and perhaps irreconcilable issues with the customers privacy may arise. ┬áThis is because the drone will be storing data necessary for it to fly to the location where the customer lives. In the time it takes at the property delivering the pizza’s it could be collecting data about the layout of the property and activities, or people living there gathered by its video feed. The customer will only have Domino’s – most likely spoken and not written – word that it wipes the data from the drone and does not store it in any form.