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Sex with Robots in Five Years?

WWW- THE race is on to keep humans one step ahead of robots: an international team of scientists and academics is to publish a “code of ethics” for machines as they become more and more sophisticated.

Although the nightmare vision of a Terminator world controlled by machines may seem fanciful, scientists believe the boundaries for human-robot interaction must be set now – before super-intelligent robots develop beyond our control.

“There are two levels of priority,” said Gianmarco Verruggio, a roboticist at the Institute of Intelligent Systems for Automation in Genoa, northern Italy, and chief architect of the guide, to be published next month. “We have to manage the ethics of the scientists making the robots and the artificial ethics inside the robots.”

Verruggio and his colleagues have identified key areas that include: ensuring human control of robots; preventing illegal use; protecting data acquired by robots; and establishing clear identification and traceability of the machines.

“Scientists must start analysing these kinds of questions and seeing if laws or regulations are needed to protect the citizen,” said Verruggio. “Robots will develop strong intelligence, and in some ways it will be better than human intelligence.

“But it will be alien intelligence; I would prefer to give priority to humans.”

The analysis culminated at a meeting recently held in Genoa by the European Robotics Research Network (Euron) that examined the problems likely to arise as robots become smarter, faster, stronger and ubiquitous.

“Security, safety and sex are the big concerns,” said Henrik Christensen, a member of the Euron ethics group. How far should robots be allowed to influence people’s lives? How can accidents be avoided? Can deliberate harm be prevented? And what happens if robots turn out to be sexy? “The question is what authority are we going to delegate to these machines?” said Professor Ronald Arkin, a roboticist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “Are we, for example, going to give robots the ability to execute lethal force, or any force, like crowd control?” The forthcoming code is a sign of reality finally catching up with science fiction. Ethical problems involving machines were predicted in the 1950s by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov whose book I, Robot was recently turned into a Hollywood film. The Terminator and Robocop series of films also portrayed mechanical law enforcers running amok.

Present robots perform more mundane tasks: the most common consumer robots in Britain include self-guided vacuum cleaners such as the Scooba, lawnmowers such as the Robomow and children’s toys such as Robosapien.

But far more sophisticated machines are being developed. The National Health Service has used a robot called da Vinci to perform surgery at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London. In Japan, human-like robots such as Honda’s Asimo and Sony’s Qrio can walk on two legs. More advanced versions are expected to be undertaking everyday domestic tasks and helping to care for the elderly in as little as 20 years.

“I would hope they would always be subordinate,” said Brian Aldiss, the science fiction writer. “But one will no doubt come to rely on them deeply.” Aldiss’s short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long was the basis for the Steven Spielberg film AI, which addressed the subject of whether androids that have become as intelligent as humans should be denied equal rights.

Other dilemmas may arrive sooner than we think, says Christensen. “People are going to be having sex with robots within five years,” he said. So should limits be set on the appearance, for example, of such robotic sex toys? The greatest danger, however, is likely to lie with robots that are able to learn from their “experiences”. As systems develop, robots are likely to have much more sophisticated self-learning mechanisms built into them and it may become impossible to predict exactly how they will behave.

“My guess is that we’ll have conscious machines before 2020,” said Ian Pearson, futurologist-in-residence at BT. “If we put that in a robot, it’s an android. That is an enormous ethical change.”

To critics who scoff that intelligent robots are a long way off, the roboticists easily riposte that machines can already exert surprising influence over our lives – think about the influence of the internet

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