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Friday, December 22, 2006

Robot Rights

UK report says robots will have rights
By Salamander Davoudi in London

Published: December 19 2006 22:01 | Last updated: December 19 2006 22:01

The next time you beat your keyboard in frustration, think of a day when it may be able to sue you for assault. Within 50 years we might even find ourselves standing next to the next generation of vacuum cleaners in the voting booth.

Far from being extracts from the extreme end of science fiction, the idea that we may one day give sentient machines the kind of rights traditionally reserved for humans is raised in a British government-commissioned report which claims to be an extensive look into the future.

Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.

“If we make conscious robots they would want to have rights and they probably should,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Centre of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The idea will not surprise science fiction aficionados. It was widely explored by Dr Isaac Asimov, one of the foremost science fiction writers of the 20th century. He wrote of a society where robots were fully integrated and essential in day-to-day life.

In his system, the ‘three laws of robotics’ governed machine life. They decreed that robots could not injure humans, must obey orders and protect their own existence – in that order.

Robots and machines are now classed as inanimate objects without rights or duties but if artificial intelligence becomes ubiquitous, the report argues, there may be calls for humans’ rights to be extended to them.

It is also logical that such rights are meted out with citizens’ duties, including voting, paying tax and compulsory military service.

Mr Christensen said: “Would it be acceptable to kick a robotic dog even though we shouldn’t kick a normal one?

“There will be people who can’t distinguish that so we need to have ethical rules to make sure we as humans interact with robots in an ethical manner so we do not move our boundaries of what is acceptable.”

The Horizon Scan report argues that if ‘correctly managed’, this new world of robots’ rights could lead to increased labour output and greater prosperity.

“If granted full rights, states will be obligated to provide full social benefits to them including income support, housing and possibly robo-healthcare to fix the machines over time,” it says.

But it points out that the process has casualties and the first one may be the environment, especially in the areas of energy and waste.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What hath Gutenberg wrought?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Printing Muscle and Bone
Ink-jet printers allow tissue engineers to control cell development and could one day be used to construct complex cellular structures.

By Jennifer Chu

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh have successfully directed adult stem cells from mice to develop into bone and muscle cells with the aid of a custom-designed ink-jet printer. They say it's a first step toward better understanding tissue regeneration, which may one day lead to therapies for repairing damaged tissues, as occurs in osteoarthritis.

For years, tissue engineers have used souped-up printers, and in some cases off-the-shelf models, to print "bio-inks." These inks consist of anything from proteins to individual cells printed in microscopic patterns. By printing layer upon layer of cell patterns, scientists may one day be able to "print" whole tissues or organs for replacement therapies.

Now Phil Campbell and his team at Carnegie Mellon have added a new branch to the budding field of bioprinting. Certain growth factors spur stem cells to morph into specific kinds of cells, such as bone or muscle. Campbell and his colleagues have successfully printed growth-factor solutions on the same slide, or "paper," forming a scaffold onto which stem cells can interact and differentiate into bone or muscle cells side by side.

The team loaded its ink-jet printer with a dilute solution containing the growth factor BMP-2, known for turning stem cells into bone cells. Meanwhile, the researchers prepared the paper they would print on: a microscope slide coated with a fibrin matrix--a material found in the body that naturally binds growth factors. The team then printed growth factors one drop at a time, in four separate square patterns of 750 microns. Each square consisted of varying shades, or concentrations, of growth factor, depending on the number of times the researchers printed on top of the same pattern.

Once the slide was dry, researchers placed it in a culture dish and evenly coated it with adult stem cells taken from the leg muscles of mice. Stem cells landing on areas with growth factors began to differentiate into bone cells--the greater the concentration of growth factor, the higher the yield of differentiated bone cells. Stem cells that landed on blank spots turned into muscle cells, which is the default developmental path for these cells.

Campbell's technique diverges from previous research, in which different types of stem cells are grown individually in separate flasks or incubation vessels. He says that being able to differentiate multiple kinds of cells, such as bone and muscle, side by side mimics the way stem cells naturally differentiate within the body.

"We're recreating microenvironments that better replicate those that nature normally makes," says Campbell. "You can envision a scaffold structure where one end promotes bone, one end tendon, the other end muscle. That gives you more control over regenerating that tissue."

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

The other side

The inevitable "Down with robots!" movement
There are many cases in which robots are going to start colliding with the human workforce, and when that happens, the inevitable result will be a backlash against the robots. People will say the robots are stealing their jobs, but that's only a limited view of what will really be happening. Useful robots will multiply the effectiveness of human ingenuity and help get more done with less human capital. The bottom line is, if you're the one who owns the robots, you're going to do very well in the future. However, if you are an unskilled worker or laborer, and you're competing against robots for productivity, you'd better learn some new skills.
Some people might say these predictions are all overblown, that we already have robots working in the car manufacturing industry, for example. But I'm talking about self-contained, mobile robots that are humanoid in shape and size, not the large pre-programmed robots that help assemble automobiles in automobile factories. Those robots are stuck in one place, they don't move around on their own or make their own decisions; they are not autonomous. But the humanoid robots of the near future will be autonomous.

These advanced robots will be able to move under their own power and they will have a goal instead of just a preprogrammed motion. In other words, they will know that the ultimate goal is to sweep the sidewalk or do the laundry or do the dishes, but getting to that goal will require lots of decision-making on the part of the robot. So these are robots that are far more capable of taking over basic human labor jobs that now employ a large number of our citizens at the lower end of the economic scale.

The "My robot hurt me!" backlash
Sooner or later of course, one of these autonomous robots is going to directly or indirectly cause harm to a human being. I don't mean intentionally, I mean accidentally; perhaps a human trips over a robot or the robot displaces something causing someone to trip and fall. There's no doubt that such an event would be used by an anti-robot movement to illustrate how robots are dangerous and should perhaps be outlawed.
Of course, a more sinister scenario involves the possibility of someone hacking into a robot and programming it to do dangerous things. There's also the very real inevitability that the Pentagon will purchase robots and program them to cause harm to other human beings, ultimately making them part of the military forces.

So, there's no question that robots will eventually be accused of harming

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As Popeye once said,"I ams what I am." But then again maybe I'm not