Will Androids Dream of Killing Electric Sheep?

A Violent Robot Filled Future Might Not Be Far Away

Graphic Laura Lalonde

The tall engineering student was eloquent in speech. His brain acted like a lightning rod for his words leaping from his lips to my doubting mind, blazing trails of portentous discovery.

“We have a campaign against killer robots,” he said with a straight face. “Remember Skynet? As roboticists, we are fighting that. We see it coming.”

Omid Danesh smiled, perhaps aware that his Terminator reference—replete with visual cues of time-traveling laconic bodybuilding killing machines—stoked flickers of incredulity on my poker face. Regardless, his steady gaze was bolstered by studies on hive-minded unmanned aerial vehicles and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

As we inch closer to elucidating the mystery of artificial intelligence—the Holy Grail of robotics—and accelerating the clock on technological singularity, scientists and laymen alike have warned that birthing the ghost in the shell could spell tentative doom for humankind.

According to a scientific theory espoused by notable experts and sci-fi writers alike, in the near future, progress in robotics will allow humans to enhance their bodies by fusing to machines.

On his news website KurzweilAI.net, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil purports that within the next thirty years “nonbiological intelligence will have access to its own design and will be able to improve itself in an increasingly rapid redesign cycle.” This event is known as the singularity.

“Technical progress will be so fast that unenhanced human intelligence will be unable to follow it,” Kurzweil wrote in an essay.

Sounds far-fetched, I know. I’m the last person to be convinced that an army of T-800s will zap you to nuclear ashes or that the tabernacle from Zardoz will bequeath you eternal life spent wearing a ridiculous outfit. Besides, Kurzweil wrote that AI would be beneficial to its creators rather than humiliating.

In any case, the vast advances we have witnessed in this young century are undeniable. They’ve already altered the information technology landscape. In North America, the quick spread of technology has promoted IT outsourcing to India and the Philippines.

Manuel Gullickson is a young IT contractor at an agency firm that provides services to big-name companies such as IBM. The wiry techie could have passed for a triple-A athlete if it weren’t for his pale, almost see-through skin that attests to endless hours spent indoors staring at computer screens.

“They really know their stuff,” said Gullickson. “The only reason companies haven’t outsourced everything yet is because they need to increase customer satisfaction by having somebody with a Canadian accent you can relate to.”

The techie tried to persuade me that the growing number of tech-savvy workers in non-traditional places is the first sign of the impending singularity. He said it’s only a matter of time until robots are able to communicate like humans and take over call centres screaming, “I am Spartacus.”

“We already have Skype translation in real time,” he said. “Like the pentecost effect [a science fiction trope where a person hears a foreign language as their own].”

The IT prophet went on about job-stealing robots, stirring my skeptical grumblings.

“Everyone wants to speak to a human, right,” he said. “But if a robot can simulate a Canadian accent knowing automatically what a caller needs, they could outsource everything to India.”

But this doubting Thomas still wasn’t convinced future auto mechanics would be replacing batteries on robots with electrical outlets for buttholes. Not anytime soon, anyway.

“Actually, we are close to AI in many different fields,” Omid Danesh said. “We have self-driving cars already.”

The slender Danesh is doing a master’s degree at Concordia University; he has specialized in aircraft systems simulation engineering. His research and that of his colleagues help airline pilots accrue hours of training in simulated cockpits.

The robot whisperer uses game theory to devise algorithms in order to control flocks of quadrocopters—more commonly known as drones.

“Imagine a school of ants,” he said. “We want to do that with robots.”

So far, Danesh has explored the possibility of four drones working together in unison, communicating and collaborating to accomplish a single goal.

“Humans can work together; how does that extend to robots?”

He is also part of The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a collective of NGOs — spearheaded by Human Rights Watch — that thinks humanity faces imminent danger as we inch closer to the instant when machines overtake humans in terms of intellectual efficiency. Reminiscent of the Three Laws of Robotics, the campaign aims to curtail the robotic arms race and prohibit fully autonomous weapons.

However, Danesh is quick to point out that we are far from fighting machines under a sun blotted out from the sky—see The Matrix.

“For instance, if I show you any kind of door, you’ll know it’s a door,” he said. “A robot wouldn’t be able to make the difference unless I somehow successfully managed to program it to recognize every single kind of door.”

Still, research in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles has pushed the boundaries of science fiction. At the cutting edge of technology, Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) has allowed drones to work in cooperation. Similar to Danesh’s own thesis subject, these robots have to ability to locate each other in urban landscapes thanks to installed GPS systems, laser rangefinders and multi-lens cameras.

Danesh said the recent popularity of drones has fueled these latest breakthroughs.

“Microprocessors are becoming cheaper. Popular topics foster research because we get more funds,” he continued. “Who knows what the future holds?

“Less than twenty years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, we had nothing that looked like their plane.”

Similar to Kurzweil’s prediction of neural implants enhancing human bodies, the Concordia mechanical engineering grad revealed that some of his colleagues were conducting research on mind-controlled UAVs.

“Based on EEG activities in your mind, you can control this flying device,” he said. “Kind of like Iron Man.”

And the killer robots?

History has shown that technology has often served militaristic endeavours. Although its name seems fantastic, The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is serious in nature, and was designed as a preemptive measure against the worst-case scenario.

Gullickson wasn’t particularly vocal about joining the Resistance, but he did offer a few choice words.

“Who knows what will happen when robots think independently like humans. Technological singularity will change our perception of life. What makes us human if a robot feels what we feel?”