Sketch: The robots are coming

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 2 March 2018 in Comment

A Scottish Parliament debate on automation and artificial intelligence brings about the start of the robot uprising

When we look back on the robot uprising, the fact it all began in the Scottish Parliament will probably be regarded as an interesting historical footnote. There are, after all, more obvious places for it to start: Silicon Valley; The Pentagon; some sort of doomsday lab. But no. As it happened, the revolution ignited in the Holyrood chamber.

Maybe the blame lies with Tory MSP Bill Bowman, who started the whole thing by asking the Scottish Government “what action it is taking to ensure that an increasing use of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) over the next decade will increase employment opportunities in Scotland.”

It’s an important issue, and the growth of robotics could present real skills challenges, with a recent report from the Centre for Cities suggesting that automation could cost Scotland 230,000 jobs over the next decade.

But then, when it comes to the effect of AI and robotics on society, evidence is mixed.

The Terminator provides one of the most detailed scientific contributions to the field, with the 1984 study concluding that robots are very much a Bad Thing. Unless your aim is a lengthy war preceded by a series of motorcycle thefts, then artificial intelligence is pretty undesirable.

In Short Circuit, by contrast, robots are a more positive development. Sure, Number Johnny Five had his issues, but most of his problems seemed to stem from humans, as well as hilarious misunderstandings, rather than AI.

And, reading between the lines, this seemed to be the general point SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson was trying to make in his follow-up.

Obviously in a philosophical mood, he pondered: “The physicist Stephen Hawking has said that the emergence of artificial intelligence could be ‘the worst event in the history of our civilisation’.

“Professor Kevin Warwick of Coventry University has tested network AI systems that cannot be switched off if they go rogue, which would be a particular problem for military applications for which AI is currently being developed. The Tesla car maker and space pioneer Elon Musk has asserted that AI is ‘as big a threat to humanity as climate change or nuclear war’.”

As big a threat as nuclear war? It was pretty worrying to be honest, even if it was hard to see how an AI robot that cannot be switched off if it goes rogue would be all that different from James Kelly, standing in the chamber and repeatedly demanding a point of order. Presumably, Robo-Kelly would also have missiles attached.

“Those views may well be alarmist,” suggested Gibson, who had just made a point of airing them, “but what safeguards are being developed with regard to artificial intelligence here in Scotland?”

Yes, maybe safeguards would be good. Of course, the other problem – as Blade Runner highlighted – is that robots could well be disguising themselves as humans. They could be anywhere, pretending to be anyone. A friend, a neighbour, even the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, if pressured, could start repeating mindless phrases, over and over, as part of some robotic meltdown. Brexit means Brexit means Brexit means Brexit. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Though, just to be clear, that’s a joke. There’s very little chance your friends and neighbours are secretly robots.

Certainly that was the view taken by Employability and Training Minister Jamie Hepburn, who, in responding to Gibson, did his best to try and introduce some perspective into proceedings by running through some of the work ministers were doing to help protect jobs.

He said: “Far be it for me to disagree with Stephen Hawking, but Kenneth Gibson is correct in saying that those views may be somewhat alarmist.”

Alarmist? Who was being alarmist?! Humanity is sitting on the brink of a hundred year war against highly-advanced killer robots, and Hepburn was throwing the word ‘alarmist’ around.

But no, he was probably right. There’s no sense being alarmist. The main thing is to remain calm. Gather supplies. Smash every computer in the vicinity, before they can rise up.

Finally, someone was showing some sense. Plan. Start with the laptops and smart phones, finish with the traffic lights, just to be safe.

“However,” Hepburn continued, “I recognise concern and it’s incumbent on us not only to consider the potential impact on the labour market but to hear those concerns. We will work in conjunction with industry and academia to gain a full understanding of future technologies.”

Gain a full understanding of future technologies? Surely that’s the opposite of what we should do? A chill ran around the chamber. Suspicious eyes focused on Hepburn. Something didn’t compute.

His answer was exactly the sort of thing a robot would say.  

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