When Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed in 1989, it is claimed that he pleaded for Jack Ramsay, a character Tom Selleck played in the 1984 Michael Crichton film, Runaway. The dictator was a fan of the film and in his desperation during the show trial may have been convinced that the film’s protagonist, a police officer who tracks down rogue robots and protected the innocent from out of control technology, would rescue him. Jack Ramsay (or Tom Selleck, for that matter) did not rescue the dictator and his wife. Instead they were both executed by the very soldiers who had previously served them.
If the technology was available and Ceausescu had robots enforcing his regime, perhaps his tyrannical rule would not have ended so violently for him. Instead, men who saw the shifting tides of history betrayed their master and gunned down him and his wife. Elena said to her executioners, “I was a mother to you.” It’s likely that the dictator and his wife knew some of their killers; the Ceausescu’s were horrible human beings, so too were those who served them and likely many of those who betrayed them. Such betrayal and a switch of loyalty or shifting morality is a concern for all rulers and organizations. Synthetic killers and robots, even better than those from Runaway, may solve that problem.
The future will bring with it a harmony between software and hardware that will defy even the imagination of fiction masters like Crichton or Isaac Asimov. Technology will enable great feats of accomplishment and will solve problems and serve humanity, though it will also serve human beings with nefarious ambitions. At present, for most human beings the concept of humanity is government dominated. It is the central authority that rules, as experts and planners who apparently know better devise and concoct solutions that supposedly safeguards and improves life. The belief is that this hierarchy is benevolent. It’s then innately understood by many that such technology should only be in the hands of such masters who are also somehow servants of the collective itself.
Technology and war go hand in hand. It’s with the ability to invent that human beings have improved their power to kill. Technology has changed the battlefield and beyond so much so that by the mid-twentieth century life on Earth could be destroyed. Such was the accomplishment of human wisdom and genius in its service to governments and the need to destroy. The computer chip and air power improved the capacity to kill remotely. Now, with improved surveillance and processing power, it is possible for an individual to be monitored from thousands of miles away. Dystopian fiction pales in comparison to what is capable today, let alone tomorrow.
The human ability to moralize and suffer injury based upon actions and events they have witnessed is a concern to central planners. It’s a weakness that inhibits the stamina to inflict harm and control on those that are a belligerent or threat to authority. Human reason and conscience can erode even the most loyal and mercenary of individuals, and should a certain moment in time arise, even loyal killers can turn on their masters—as was the case for the Ceausescu’s and countless other despots. Human fragility and a desire for self preservation can in the end betray and fail those who surround themselves with the cloak of laws and armor of obedience. In time, synthetic soldiers and police may protect the powerful, a time when incentives are replaced by programming and any constraints will transcend humanity.
The learning robots that are coming from such companies as Boston Laboratories reveal a future that will provide an industrial work force. Rescuers and logistics that will not be subject to human fatigue and error. As these machines learn they will “perfect” themselves for the task in hand. It’s assumed that they will eventually be adaptable to all conditions and circumstances, ever reliable, saving time, money, resources, and human life. For every self-driving train there will be far more armed and deadly synthetic killers, hunting and monitoring humanity. The romance of the AI driven machine is that it will remove human error, preventing accidents and improving quality of life. It will also remove the human error when it comes to war and endless surveillance, a perfect weapon for empire.
The developers of such technology often claim that they create with a philosophy of “ethical programming.” Ethical programming promises that this technology does not threaten human rights and will not commit war crimes. Think of the hypocratic oath for doctors, or or Issac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
- The First Law: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through in-action, allow a human being to come to harm.”
- The Second Law: “A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except when such orders conflict with the First Law.”
- The Third Law: ‘A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
Such ethics are lovely to believe in. Though in time, governments and organizations who are not constrained by the perceptions of morality that perfumes liberal democracy may develop intelligent robots to enforce their regime, trusting killing and enforcement to even more loyal soldiers. It’s naive to assume that a machine would not be subject to reprogramming.
Ethical programming and the Three Laws of Robotics are fictions put in place to allow the humans developing such technology to believe that what they are working on will not be used to harm the innocent. Such moral claims also likely serve to ensure a positive publicity while securing funding and engineers who can work under the premise of a good conscience.
Once any technology becomes mainstream it’s doubtful that such ethics and constraints will even be necessary. At the start of the twentieth century there was debate on the use of air power to attack cities. Widespread moral indignation was raised when the Spanish Nationalists bombed the city of Guernica in 1937. A few years later the mass bombing of cities had become a sophisticated art of murder-science with chemists and engineers conspiring to create deadly concoctions to maximize damage and death until the physicists unveiled their masterpiece: the atom bomb.
War brings with it a myriad of moral exceptionalism; “all is fair,” so long as one is the victor. If a synthetic soldier cannot commit a war crime, can it collaterally damage human life? Is it possible that the supposed grey areas of warfare that exist today will simply expand with such future technology? When it comes to these devices, fiction is often the premonition that we can lean into. Real history, however, is the most likely predictor of things to come. Technology is a slave to those who wield it.
The “collective good” is claimed as a justification to deny human rights and to commit harm against the individual. We have seen this recently with the response to the COVID-19 virus and policies on terrorism, prohibition, and censorship. Those who are anointed as the leaders and experts can determine what is in the best interest for nation or even the planet and will employ technology to impose policy. Even with retrospection when a policy is known to be wrong or proven to have done greater harm, government is never in the wrong because by the distinction of authority it will always exist to correct and improve upon itself.
Tomorrow killer drones will hunt ships and aircraft, serving both government and insurgents alike. Drones have already changed warfare and foreign policy, successfully making killing and surveillance “safer” for the button-pushers. Will incarceration and assassination soon become automated? Will artificial intelligence monitoring social media, word processing software, and connected devices generate a case against individuals to then have them abducted and punished accordingly under a “fair and unbiased system” run by non-humans?
The future is an undiscovered country of frontiers. Technology has assisted and comforted us all, while improving our lives. In time it can become a tool to enslave and wage war on the individual, any outlier who may not want to live according to a centrally planned vision. It’s naive to believe that synthetic cops or soldiers will be governed by a code that will protect human rights. But for every person who will enforce and destroy human life and dignity, whether with bare hands or with a robot’s synthetic grip, there will be one who resists. To embrace humanity we do not need to reject technology, but we do need to value human dignity.
Perhaps in time many of us will be begging to a synthetic court, “Save us Jack Ramsay!” By then the machines will not care. But neither did the killers who served Ceausescu.