WHEN the autonomous cars in Isaac Asimov’s 1953 short story “Sally” encourage a robotic bus to dole out some rough justice to an unscrupulous businessman, the reader is to believe that the bus has contravened Asimov’s first law of robotics, which states that “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”.
Asimov’s “three laws” are a bit of science-fiction firmament that have escaped into the wider consciousness, often taken to be a serious basis for robot governance. But robots of the classic sort, and bionic technologies that enhance or become part of humans, raise many thorny legal, ethical and regulatory questions. If an assistive exoskeleton is implicated in a death, who is at fault? If a brain-computer interface is used to communicate with someone in a vegetative state, are those messages legally binding? Can someone opt to replace their healthy limbs with robotic prostheses?
Questions such as these are difficult to anticipate. The concern for policymakers is creating a regulatory and legal environment that is broad enough to maintain legal and ethical norms but is not so proscriptive as to hamper innovation. It was with this difficult mission in mind that the €1.9m ($2.4m) RoboLaw consortium of experts in law, engineering, philosophy, regulation and human enhancement was brought together in 2012.
On September 22nd the consortium released the results of its deliberations: the “Guidelines on Regulating Robotics”. On September 24th they were presented at a session on legal affairs at the European Parliament (the European Commission footed €1.4m of the project’s bill). The document is a set of recommendations designed to help European legislators successfully manage the introduction of new robotic and human enhancement technologies into society without compromising principles already enshrined in European law.
The report’s authors warn against “excessively restrictive” legislation that can stifle innovation, recommending a “functional perspective” that focuses on practical effects and incentives embodied in any new robot-specific laws. An approach to broad, over-arching robot legislation—such as Asimov’s “three laws of robotics”—is likely to fail, says Andrea Bertolini, of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, in Pisa, Italy, which led the consortium. Instead, ad hoc legislation could be used to steer the development of the market in specific directions. That is an important suggestion when the term “robot” covers such a diversity of devices, from medical robots to vacuum cleaners to prostheses.
Stringent product-safety rules, for example, might discourage development of advanced prostheses and exoskeletons, a set of technologies that the European Union is keen to support, given its legal and policy commitment to disability rights. Liability exemptions for manufacturers could relieve some pressure. “No-fault” plans, especially in cases where an insurance market for robotic devices is difficult to establish, could help too. Manufacturers and governments could pay into a compensation fund used if mishaps occur.
Prostheses also raise questions around the legal distinction between person and property, but the report suggests that there is no advantage to creating a new category between human and machine. As Dr Bertolini puts it: “a human with a prosthesis is still a human.” But what of rights for the machines themselves? Dr Bertolini says that there are several arguments against granting them. Firstly, artificial intelligence is still far from surpassing that of humans. More philosophically, any autonomy that robots gain is designed and granted by humans. Thus, the argument goes, robots are to be considered objects, not subjects; the question of rights then disappears. On the other hand, the report says that in limited circumstances, robots might be granted a legal status similar to a corporation, perhaps enabling robots to perform legal transactions (but raises the question of how a robot can be legally represented in court).
The authors call for the role of supranational bodies such as the International Standardization Organization to be strengthened, and suggest that an international body to regulate robotic devices may be required—many of the questions posed will become inherently international concerns. But Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, says that America lags behind both Europe and Asia in its attempts to tackle these ethical, regulatory and legal issues. Mr Calo recently called for the establishment of a Federal Robotics Commission to coordinate the piecemeal research going on in America. In the meantime, he says, the RoboLaw guidelines will be some help.
The original charter of RoboLaw had it that its flagship report would be a more high-profile European Commission white paper; instead it has become a policy discussion document. Nevertheless, it sparked significant debate among the MEPs in the session, in some cases around the very issues that the report means to flag up. Whether or not the commission takes up the task pre-emptively, these technologies will outstrip the ability of existing legal frameworks to govern them.
Asimov’s “three laws of robotics” sparked imaginations about how robots could be governed. But they were merely a literary device; they can now, respectfully, be laid to rest as the basis for serious legal discussion. The truth is stranger, and more complex, than fiction.
FOR a brief period in the small hours of the morning of September 24th, a control room full of Indian engineers held their breath as Mangalyaan (Hindi for “Mars vehicle”) hid behind the planet’s dark side. They waited for automatic systems to fire the main engine, which had passed tests earlier in the week, in order to slow the craft enough that it could fall into an orbit around Mars after a 323-day journey. A few tense minutes later, screens in the control room revealed that India had managed to do what no other nation had done before—succeeded in its first attempt to reach Mars safely.
That puts the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in a league of just four space agencies in history to chalk up a working Mars mission (of the seven operational spacecraft currently orbiting around and trundling on Mars, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express is the only other non-American entrant). Formally known as the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan's principal mission is as a showcase of technological skill. Its success presents India as a frugal supplier in the burgeoning international space industry. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, likes to boast that, at about $74m, Mangalyaan was cheaper to produce than the science-fiction blockbuster “Gravity”.
Three days earlier, the American craft MAVEN—NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution—also successfully entered an orbit around Mars. Its price tag of $671m is nine times that of Mangalyaan, but it has a significantly longer to-do list. MAVEN will attempt to understand how Mars lost the flowing water and dense atmosphere that it once had. An elongated elliptical orbit will allow MAVEN to dip into Mars’s thin upper atmosphere and sniff out answers.
Mangalayaan's scientific aims are modest. Its camera is no better than those on some of the American probes. Although it too will analyse the Martian atmosphere, data from its miniaturised instruments (Mangalyaan carries 15kg of instrumentation, compared with MAVEN's 65kg) may not add much to the story MAVEN provides. Mangalyaan's success lies in having reached Mars on a comparatively minuscule budget.
To pull that off, India cut costs at every stage of the mission. It reused much of the technology that went into Chandrayaan, India’s successful 2008 lunar mission, obviating the need for new space-worthiness tests. ISRO used its own launcher, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The development phase was accelerated too. A 2010 feasibility study led to federal approval in 2012, with Mangalyaan launching the following year. In part, this rush was down to cosmic timing: the alignment of planets that permits an energy-saving “transfer orbit” only comes around every two years or so. If Mangalyaan had missed its November 2013 date, it would have had to postpone until early 2016.
India’s road ahead in space exploration is more difficult. Its second lunar mission will land the Chandrayaan-2 rover in 2016, and the Aditya-1 fly-by of the sun is set for 2018. Those missions will use a larger launch vehicle that has been under development for far less time, and that has so far shown a lower success rate.
Those limitations should not curtail India’s commercial interests. It has launched satellites for 19 countries, and more are sure to come knocking. Investment in space has more than doubled in the past decade, from $35 billion in 2000 to $73 billion in 2012, according to Euroconsult, a space-market consultancy. Most of the increased investment has come from poor countries; more than 70 nations now have space programmes. Detractors will continue to question India’s investment in space, given that a third of its 1.2 billion people still live under the poverty line. However, if there is an economic case to be made for India as a space power, Mangalyaan has only given it a shot in the arm.
In case anyone needed an idea for a Christmas present for me, either of these will do:
You ever get a song stuck in your head, and have to either listen to it or sing it out?
Ignoring my office surroundings, this is what I belted out from my desk yesterday:
"One little, two little, three little dinosaurs, four little, five little, six little dinosaurs, seven little, eight little, nine little dinosaurs, all dead in the ground!"
I have been thinking of doing this post for a while. Tonight, a conversation with a fellow tumblr-er reminded me to finally do it.
What got you in to science? There has to be a story behind it! I have exactly 660 followers at the moment. You wouldn’t have followed a science blog unless you liked science in some way. Each of you, please, tell me, why do you like science?
For me, I simply cannot remember a time in which dinosaurs were notnpart of my life. I find this to be a beautiful thing. Dinosaurs are as fundamental to my life as air and water, light and dark. I cannot imagine life without them; perhaps they are part of my definition of living, somehow. Dinosaurs always have been there in my life, and I know with confidence that they always will be. Perhaps, on some psychological level, there is some comfort to be found in that. Maybe, I don’t know.
How I got into dinosaurs? Now, this is a trickier question. As I clearly have no memory of my baby or toddler years, and eyewitness accounts all provide evidence that I showed a strong attraction for dinosaurs from the start, I can’t definitively state the reason. The best I’ve got for a possible stimulus is actually my sister, two years old at the time I was born. At that point The Land Before Time was a brand new film, and my sister was apparently obsessed with it. Photographic evidence of an early birthday of hers (2nd or 3rd birthday?) even shows a generic dinosaur cake. This may have exposed me the subject of dinosaurs in general at an early age. My sister quickly left dinosaurs for horses, dolls, and pink things. For whatever reason, I never did. The Land Before Time, Jurassic Park, all these things came and went, and still, there I was, obsessed with dinosaurs as they were.
Of course, like any adventurous boy, that wasn’t all. I also loved any and all reptiles (alligators, monitor lizards, and snakes were my favorites), and insects of any and all kinds. I would sit and watch ants (the tiny, common and relatively uninteresting Tapinoma sessile, the Odorous House Ant) for hours. Sharks also fascinated me to no end. My scientific interests were already strongly directed towards the animals. (But as a side note, I did love my rocks, oh how I loved rocks!)
As I grew older, my interest in these topics did not diminish, rather it grew. When I had just turned 15, I rediscovered the documentary The Great Dinosaur Hunt, at this point a dusty VHS that I vaguely remembered from my childhood. I had watched it the year before as well, after finishing Reading Between the Bones by Susan Clinton (a book aimed at younger readers about the history of dinosaur paleontology, one that largely caused me to shift from using the word “bone” and instead say “fossil”). I watched it one afternoon after school. The next day, I had the enormous desire to watch it again, something I never, ever do, even to this day. It quickly became my favorite film of all time, as it remains even now.
The thought came to me, If I love this so much, if all of it looks like so much fun, the work, the long hours, the dust, the rocks, the desert, the excavation process, if I am fascinated by even the slightest glimpse into the lives of these ancient animals, then why not think about it seriously, as a career? It was not long before my mind was made up: I wanted to be a paleontologist. (Perhaps this next part is more a story for another day due to how personal it is, but for the next couple of years I met with stiff resistance to my decision.)
As you see, my decision has not changed. I am a biology major today because my life’s goal is still to study the dinosaurs, as well as other fossil animals. I will not back down from this, no matter what or who tries to stop me (you’d actually be surprised at the roadblocks those who choose research careers run into in their personal lives). No comments about how poor I will be or how being a med student would be superior in every way have or will sway me.
So this is me, now. A college student trying to juggle a demanding day job, constant night classes, weekend museum work, and a personal life all at once. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Now, as to the other sciences, anything from physics to astronomy, from ornithology to just about anything else, that was a later development. Admittedly, some of these interests I myself have cultivated. It was never with regret, mind you, but whereas with things like dinosaurs they called to me, they pulled me in, whereas with something such as, astronomy, I didn’t have any childhood exposure to such things, so I decided to learn more about it on my own (the natural fascination came afterwards, upon gaining more information for my mind to begin to grasp). As an adult now, I can see the benefit of learning about all realms of science, and it is the truth when I say that any and all real science fascinates me to no end; hence, this blog!
So, that’s how I got into science. This before you is a deeply personal story that I rarely share with anyone. However, I trust my readers with it, as you can trust me with yours. So, how about you? How did you get into science?
Reblog this with your own story!
I think it’s time to run this again. I’d honestly love to hear! I now have 1,868 followers. I know there are a lot more of you out there to tell your stories this time.
Reblog, and let’s hear it!