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Intelligent Regulation of AI: Elon Musk’s Oppenheimer Moment?

Jul 19, 2017
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Intelligent Regulation of AI: Elon Musk’s Oppenheimer Moment?

“I am death, destroyer of worlds” – J. Robert Oppenheimer the Father of the Atomic Bomb


Entrepreneur and technologist Elon Musk recently warned that unregulated artificial intelligence may be the greatest threat we face as a human civilization. This comes as a bit of a surprise from Musk who has been described as a technolibertarian. But after focusing on the limitless possibilities of advancing technologies (populating space, smart/driverless cars, cyborg-esque neural enhancements), Musk seems to be realizing the risks of radical technological advancement.

Lord Acton famously said that “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.”  As technology becomes more powerful, we have to consider how we put checks and balances on that power.

Asimov’s Three Rules of Robots. A good place to think about the regulation of AI and robots is Isaac Asimov’s Three Rules of Robots.

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

That is a good starting point. But, what happens when robots are subject to competing commands? For instance, what if a government agent and the owner of the robot give contrary commands to the robot? To protect privacy and ownership rights, we will need to establish a modern jurisprudence that a government agent can only command a privately owned to disclose information about the owner or act without the owner’s consent. That may be fine in the ordinary course of things. But, there would have to be an exception when the public is imminently in danger from the actions of a robot, automated equipment or a driverless car.

In the case of a driverless car that is heading into a crowd of people, the police would need the ability to override the system to prevent the loss of life. Wouldn’t this mean that the police would need a kill switch or remote override on every driverless car or other automated piece of equipment?  If the police and other government authorities have a remote control over automated equipment, doesn’t that mean that such equipment could potentially be hacked? As you can see, once we start down this road of regulation and “safety” controls, the ethical/legal issues are countless. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves in a surveillance state that merely pays lip service to personal liberties such as privacy and freedom from warrantless searches.

Taxation. As we mentioned yesterday, PriceWaterhouseCoopers has estimated that 38% of all current jobs will be eliminated by automation within 15 years.  To the extent that robots are competing with humans for “jobs”, shouldn’t public policy favor the humans? After all, robots don’t vote (yet).  Earlier this year, Bill Gates turned head when he suggested that robots should be taxed when they take human jobs.   Taxing robots would be one small step toward favoring humans over robots in the work force.  A robot tax might come in the form of a national sales tax. Goods produced by humans might be taxed higher than goods produced via automation. While we are at it, if we want to favor human jobs over automation as a public policy, why not replace the current payroll taxes (i.e., taxes paid by the employer and employee) with a national sales tax?

Electronic Personhood. Earlier this year, the European Parliament legal affairs committee recommended the creation of “electronic personhood” for robots. That’s right, legal rights for robots.

Thanks to machine learning, robots may soon be able to write or rewrite their own source code. If this advances far enough, the robots would develop something resembling their own identity. The resulting ethical dilemma is whether a robot with an idea is a legal person entitled to their own civil rights. If the robot’s personhood and rights are recognized, who will have the right to permanently turn off and recycle a robot?  As machines learn, will robots begin to understand good and evil, and have the freedom (as we do) to choose to do evil?

These are questions that robot ethicists are asking. (Yes, a robot ethicist is a thing).

Now, go back and read this essay again with the idea that robots are or will become “persons.” Some of the assumptions in this article would be undermined. If robots have rights, are they still property? Would they be subject to taxation without representation?  Would they have Fifth Amendment rights to not incriminate themselves?

Guilds and Unions. I expect humans to protect their interests, as we always do.  We might start with a humble #buyhuman campaign. But, I think we will also protect ourselves with guilds, unions and regulations. I am a lawyer by trade. I belong to a guild called the State Bar of Texas. Thanks to the Bar’s lobbying efforts, it is not lawful for attorneys (or robots) to practice law in this state without a Texas law license. I would expect other guilds to form to try to prevent trades and professions from being automated.

Elon Musk is a forward thinker. He is thinking ahead to the risks of technological change. Maybe those changes are not nearly as imminent as he fears because we humans will likely slow things down with regulations, committees, guilds, and other self-interested roadblocks. But, technology’s potential for good evil are equal in scope. We should be thinking ahead about how we will govern artificial intelligence, rather than allowing technology and those who control it to govern us.


Photo Copyright Joseph Kubes – 123rf.com

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