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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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile