Feeling robots’ pain

The packbot: one of iRobot's products for the military.A few weeks ago, the British press was abuzz with stories about robot rights. A collection of roboticists and philosophers got together to debate the issue at the Dana Center in London as a result of a quasi-governmental report published towards the end of last year. This sparked a discussion on the influential BBC radio program Today: a show that is thought to have the ears of the political class running the UK.

Members of the US military have also been thinking about robot welfare. At a meeting of the British Computer Society last week, I heard Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobotand outgoing head of the MIT Computer Science and AI Laboratory, describe the relationship between one robot and its operator. After several successful missions, the packbot (an example of which is pictured), was destroyed. The operator brought it back to the makers and asked for it to be rebuilt. He didn’t want a new one, he wanted it fixed. It was a good robot and they’d been through a lot together…

Mark Tilden has a similar story to tell: after watching a successful demonstration of one of his landmine-clearing robots, a colonel insisted that the test be stopped be stopped because it was inhumane.

There is even an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots.

I like machines. I spend more waking hours with computers than I do with people on top of worrying about how to make them more intelligent. However, I have to say that I don’t lose sleep about their well-being. I believe we could one-day have conscious, self-aware robots: different from humans but feeling their own kind of pain or hunger. I do. And when we get remotely close to that state of technology, if it’s in my lifetime, I expect I’ll have an early opportunity to see (meet?) these machines and will choose to champion their rights.

However, in the meantime, my view is that this concern is absurd verging on obscene. For one thing, I’d rather we spend the time worrying about human rights, or even animal rights, at a time when they seem so under protected: at least we know for sure animals feel pain. For another, if the civil liberties of humans (never mind animals) continue to be violated as flagrantly and often as they seem to be now, what chance is there that robot rights, whether legislated for or not, will be in any way respected?

Photo: The packbot, one of iRobot’s products for the military.

Originally posted on Brains and Machines.