Nothing like this one: a humanoid robot at a robotics fair in Lyon, 19 March. Photo: Getty
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Should scientists be prosecuted for killings carried out by their armed robots?

Using technology about to be approved for medical use, we can now program computers to identify a possible target and decide whether to fire weapons at it.

Should scientists be prosecuted for killings carried out by armed robots? If that sounds like the premise of a science-fiction film, don’t be fooled – the question came up at the UN in Geneva this month. The genre’s power to inspire innovation is well known. Recently, for instance, physicists unveiled a new kind of tractor beam. In sci-fi, this is the kind of pull that can bring a spaceship into docking position, but at the moment we can exert a significant pull on a centimetre-sized object only. Still, that’s quite an achievement for a technology using nothing more than sound.

Sound is a variation in air pressure, with regions of high and low pressure forming waves. Computer algorithms can shape these waves so that their energy exerts a pull. The sonic tractor beam is viewed as a means of moving medicines – a pill, say – around the body to target particular organs. Because sonic sources are already in the medical toolkit – tumours, for instance, are blasted with ultrasound – approval for medical use is expected to come quickly.

Probably not quickly enough to reach the market before the new “Luke” hand, however. The US Food and Drug Administration approved this Star Wars-style prosthetic limb for general sale on 9 May. The hand is significant because it is controlled by electrical signals taken from muscle contractions. This has allowed users to perform tasks that are impossible with standard prostheses, such as using key-operated locks and handling fragile objects such as eggs. These ultra-sensitive capabilities result from artificial intelligence: signal processing that learns how to translate the electrical signals from the muscles into the delicate operations that the wearer wants to perform.

The hand’s development was largely funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and it was approved through the FDA’s “de novo” classification process, designed to speed up the system of bringing first-of-their-kind devices to market. This fast-track route is open to only “low-to-moderate-risk” medical devices. The autonomous, potentially lethal robots that Darpa also has coming off the drawing board are not eligible.

We can now program computers to identify a possible target and decide whether to fire weapons at it. In effect, it is the same programming that allows the Luke hand to decide what an amputee’s muscle twitches mean, or keeps the tractor beam pulling the pill towards your liver. How can we hold the scientists to account for potential misuse?

The question was raised at the UN’s first debate on “laws”: lethal autonomous weapons systems. While some experts want an outright ban, Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology pointed out that Pope Innocent II tried to ban the crossbow in 1139, and argued that it would be almost impossible to enforce such a ban. Much better, he argued, to develop these technologies in ways that might make war zones safer for non-combatants. In the meantime, Arkin suggests, if these robots are used illegally, the policymakers, soldiers, industrialists and, yes, scientists involved should be held accountable.

However, if these are the same scientists and the same basic algorithms used for humanitarian medical purposes, it’s going to be difficult to bring a case. And should we risk putting the brakes on innovation for fear of subsequent misuse? Maybe we should let the robots decide.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Why have men become so lonely – and how does it affect their health?

New findings show the consequences of having a lonely heart.

Go out and get some friends. No, seriously. Hop on the Tube and act faux-interested in the crap-looking book your fellow commuter is reading, even if it's on their Kindle. Chances are it's better than the one in your bag, and they're probably a decent human being and just as lonely, like you and me.

A new slate of facts and figures are showing just how widespread loneliness, is while simultaneously being amazingly terrible for your health.

Research led by Steven Cole from the medicine department at University of California, Los Angeles is showing the cellular mechanisms behind the long known pitfalls of loneliness. Perceived social isolation (PSI) – the scientific term for loneliness –increases the exposure to chronic diseases and even mortality for individuals across the world.

The authors examined the effects of loneliness on leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, which are produced from stem cells in the bone marrow and are critical to the immune system and defending the body against bacteria and viruses. The results showed loneliness increases signalling in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for controlling our fight-or-flight responses, and also affects the production of white blood cells.

Recently, the Movember Foundation, which focuses on men's health and wellbeing, carried out a survey with the help of YouGov investigating friendship and loneliness amongst men. The results are alarming, with only 11 per cent of single men across the spectrum in their early 20s to late-middle age saying they had a friend to turn to in a time of crisis, the number rising to 15 per cent for married men.

Friendship has shown not only to be important to a person's overall wellbeing, but can even add to a person's earnings. A previous study involving 10,000 US citizens over 35 years showed people earned 2 per cent more for each friend they had.

The Movember Foundation survey comes soon after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that men in Britain make up 58 per cent of the 2.47m people living alone between the ages of 45 and 64. The reasons behind this figure include marrying later in life and failed marriages, which usually result in children living with the mother. Women still make up the majority of the 7.7m single-occupant households across all ages in the country, at approximately 54 per cent.

Chronic loneliness seems to have slowly become a persistent problem for the country despite our hyper-connected world. It's an issue that has made even Jeremy Hunt say sensible things, such as "the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives" about this hidden crisis. He's previously called for British families to adopt the approach of many Asian families of having grandparents live under the same roof as children and grandchildren, and view care homes as a last, not first, option.

The number of single-person households has continued to increase over the years. While studies such as this add to the list of reasons why being alone is terrible for you, researchers are stumped as to how we can tackle this major social issue. Here's my suggestion: turn off whatever screen you're reading this from and strike up a conversation with someone who looks approachable. They could end up becoming your new best friend.