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Rabe talks robot rights with Matt DeBord

by Matthew DeBord | Off-Ramp®

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A model of the Curiosity, NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, which will examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars, is seen prior to a news briefing, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. NASA/Paul E. Alers

KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.

So here's the setup: Robot rights are my hobby. I'm completely serious. I've devoted a ton of free time over the past few years — time that could have been spent learning the tango or shooting pool — to pondering the question: Do we treat robots as well as we should? I have well-formed arguments, thick with verbal footnotes and rhetorical digressions.

Despite all that, Rabe isn't buying it. He doesn't think that robots are currently sentient, so why should we worry about this now? Why not just wait until we arrive at what futurists call the "Singularity," when artificial intelligence will figure out how to improve itself in ways we puny humans can't imagine, and deal with the whole thing then?

Because it will be too late! The robots' former masters will, literally overnight, start to look at us as if we were bugs! They could decide to wipe us out! We never had this problem with the animals, and we didn't really get around to thinking that their feelings mattered until the 1970s, when Peter Singer published his influential book "Animal Liberation" (I sometimes call my views on robot rights "Robot Liberation," in honor of Singer, a professor at Princeton).

In fact, the way we look at animals now — as a sentient sub-species — might be how the post-Singularity robots look at us. But it's not like we haven't gained some experience with thinking of robots as our representatives, our emissaries, extensions of who we are. We're about to land another rover on Mars, we've launched numerous probes into the Solar System, and Voyager 1 is preparing to enter interstellar space, making it the machine intelligence built! that's traveled farthest from home. At that's just the science stuff. We can always talk about robot drones being used in warfare and eventually making life-and-death decisions on their own in battle.

When I talk to scientists about this, they get where I'm coming from. They develop an attachment to their creations that contains ethical elements, even if they aren't rationally prepared to say that their robots have feelings.

My debate with Rabe is but the beginning! But maybe you don't agree with me, either. Take it to the comments!

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