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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From Darwin to Damore - the ancient art of using "science" to mask prejudice

Charles Darwin, working at a time when women had little legal rights, declared “woman is a kind of adult child”.

“In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females,” wrote James Damore, in his now infamous anti-diversity Google memo. “As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more co-operative and agreeable than men.” Since the memo was published, hordes of women have come forward to say that views like these – where individuals justify bias on the basis of science – are not uncommon in their traditionally male-dominated fields. Damore’s controversial screed set off discussions about the age old debate: do biological differences justify discrimination?  

Modern science developed in a society which assumed that man was superior over women. Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary biology, who died before women got the right to vote, argued that young children of both genders resembled adult women more than they did adult men; as a result, “woman is a kind of adult child”.

Racial inequality wasn’t immune from this kind of theorising either. As fields such as psychology and genetics developed a greater understanding about the fundamental building blocks of humanity, many prominent researchers such as Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, argued that there were biological differences between races which explained the ability of the European race to prosper and gather wealth, while other races fell far behind. The same kind of reasoning fuelled the Nazi eugenics and continues to fuel the alt-right in their many guises today.

Once scorned as blasphemy, today "science" is approached by many non-practitioners with a cult-like reverence. Attributing the differences between races and gender to scientific research carries the allure of empiricism. Opponents of "diversity" would have you believe that scientific research validates racism and sexism, even though one's bleeding heart might wish otherwise. 

The problem is that current scientific research just doesn’t agree. Some branches of science, such as physics, are concerned with irrefutable laws of nature. But the reality, as evidenced by the growing convergence of social sciences like sociology, and life sciences, such as biology, is that science as a whole will, and should change. The research coming out of fields like genetics and psychology paint an increasingly complex picture of humanity. Saying (and proving) that gravity exists isn't factually equivalent to saying, and trying to prove, that women are somehow less capable at their jobs because of presumed inherent traits like submissiveness. 

When it comes to matters of race, the argument against racial realism, as it’s often referred to, is unequivocal. A study in 2002, authored by Neil Risch and others, built on the work of the Human Genome Project to examine the long standing and popular myth of seven distinct races. Researchers found that  “62 per cent of Ethiopians belong to the same cluster as Norwegians, together with 21 per cent of the Afro-Caribbeans, and the ethnic label ‘Asian’ inaccurately describes Chinese and Papuans who were placed almost entirely in separate clusters.” All that means is that white supremacists are wrong, and always have been.

Even the researcher Damore cites in his memo, Bradley Schmitt of Bradley University in Illinois, doesn’t agree with Damore’s conclusions.  Schmitt pointed out, in correspondence with Wired, that biological difference only accounts for about 10 per cent of the variance between men and women in what Damore characterises as female traits, such as neuroticism. In addition, nebulous traits such as being “people-oriented” are difficult to define and have led to wildly contradictory research from people who are experts in the fields. Suggesting that women are bad engineers because they’re neurotic is not only mildly ridiculous, but even unsubstantiated by Damore’s own research.  As many have done before him, Damore couched his own worldview - and what he was trying to convince others of - in the language of rationalism, but ultimately didn't pay attention to the facts.

And, even if you did buy into Damore's memo, a true scientist would retort - so what? It's a fallacy to argue that just because a certain state of affairs prevails, that that is the way that it ought to be. If that was the case, why does humanity march on in the direction of technological and industrial progress?

Humans weren’t meant to travel large distances, or we would possess the ability to do so intrinsically. Boats, cars, airplanes, trains, according to the Damore mindset, would be a perversion of nature. As a species, we consider overcoming biology to be a sign of success. 

Of course, the damage done by these kinds of views is not only that they’re hard to counteract, but that they have real consequences. Throughout history, appeals to the supposed rationalism of scientific research have justified moral atrocities such as ethnic sterilisation, apartheid, the creation of the slave trade, and state-sanctioned genocide.

If those in positions of power genuinely think that black and Hispanic communities are genetically predisposed to crime and murder, they’re very unlikely to invest in education, housing and community centres for those groups. Cycles of poverty then continue, and the myth, dressed up in pseudo-science, is entrenched. 

Damore and those like him will certainly maintain that the evidence for gender differences are on their side. Since he was fired from Google, Damore has become somewhat of an icon to some parts of society, giving interviews to right-wing Youtubers and posing in a dubious shirt parodying the Google logo (it now says Goolag). Never mind that Damore’s beloved science has already proved them wrong.