Just this past week, news broke that one Air Force colonel was advocating the implementation of a “botnet” — a series of linked computers that, in emulation of tactics used by hackers and spammers, could be used to wage cyber warfare. It’s just the latest example of what some argue is the mechanization of the military in ways not everyone may entirely understand or be able to control. In a world where, as Warwick points out, networked neural systems can “learn from experience,” is this really such a smart plan? (Wired doesn’t think so, calling it, for various reasons, “the most lunatic idea to come out of the military since the gay bomb.”)

“The US military has set the pace,” says Warwick. “By 2020, there will be few human soldiers on the front line. Networked communications are already so much improved to support this.” But “the reasoning of such a system is very different to that of a human: it is a machine-networked system, with machine values and machine ethics. It has been created to destroy targets. The only missing piece is the decision-making element — what makes the system select a target, and what target does it select?”

Weird science
If it makes you feel any better, we’re probably safe in the near-term, says Paulina Varshavskaya, a post-doc student in the Distributed Robotics lab at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

For the record: it’s still really hard to even get a robot to walk. “Or see, or speak, or understand a sentence. Or anything related to perception or manipulation of the physical world.”

That said, Varshavskaya is making strides in her field of machine learning and distributed systems — science that enables “several robots or several computers or several artificial agents to work together and improve their behavior.”

A-ha! So she is building a mechanical army. And it’s massing right here in our backyard!

“Precisely not like that.”

But, she says, the more basic question of whether machines will one day rule us has pretty much already been answered.

“What does that mean, to take over the world? The Internet has taken over the world — the First World, at least — and nobody seems to mind.” Instead of focusing on a “crazy malevolent scenario” where “some evil robots subjugate humans,” we should recognize what’s already come to pass.

“There are so many things now that we don’t even think of doing without the aid of machines,” says Varshavskaya. “We have machines that are stronger than us. The Internet already knows more than any single person. That doesn’t seem to alarm anyone.”

This “sci-fi scenario of humanoid-looking robots that have this weird thing called AI that are somehow trying to get their say by destroying humans, or making them their servants? I find that silly,” she says. “There’s no way in the future that I can see that technology will make up its own mind about how to use us.”

Yes, there’s a lot of weird science out there right now. And as the decades zoom past, it could get a lot weirder. But as with any technology — be it the Blackberry you can’t put down or the MMORPG you can’t stop playing — “anytime there’s something new,” says Varshavskaya, “it liberates us and subjugates us.”

Mike Miliard, for one, welcomes our new robot overlords. They can contact him atmmiliard@phx.com.

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