Brave new technological world

Much of what was once considered ‘science fiction’ is, in fact, now becoming reality. Artificial intelligence has already crept into the mainstream by way of computer algorithms which now govern so much of our daily experience

Cartoon by MIkiel Galea
Cartoon by MIkiel Galea

The announcement that government may be considering granting rights to robots – possibly including citizenship – has been greeted by a chorus of disbelief and humorous satire. Certainly, the prospect does seem to emanate directly out of a science fiction novel.

Nonetheless, there is a serious side to the discussion. Much of what was once considered ‘science fiction’ is, in fact, now becoming reality. It is no longer ‘futuristic’ to talk about robotics as part and parcel of everyday life. Artificial intelligence has already crept into the mainstream by way of computer algorithms which now govern so much of our daily experience – directing what advertising we see on the Internet, pre-empting our personal tastes, and so on. And with the advent of intelligent, humanoid robots like ‘Sophia’ – who clearly made quite an impression when unveiled to the Maltese public this week - it is only a matter of time before legislation is indeed warranted to regulate this new and largely uncharted aspect of our collective experience.

From this perspective, it is probably true that – in Malta and elsewhere – we need to discuss a new legislative framework to accommodate these new realities.  This is in fact why the European Parliament passed a resolution last year that envisions a special legal status of "electronic persons" for the most sophisticated autonomous robots.

Having said this, in such a technical matter it would probably be wisest to leave the actual discussion in the hands of experts. An open letter signed by “Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Experts, industry leaders, law, medical and ethics experts” has poured cold water on the discussions currently under way at European Commission level: arguing that, while “EU-wide rules for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence is pertinent to guarantee a high level of safety and security to the European Union citizens”, the approach taken so far has been “based on an overvaluation of the actual capabilities of even the most advanced robots, a superficial understanding of unpredictability and self-learning capacities, and a robot perception distorted by Science-Fiction and a few recent sensational press announcements.”

Above all, the signatories argue against any legal initiative aimed at granting ‘rights’ to robots on a par with human beings. On the contrary, they affirm that “the European Union must prompt the development of the AI and Robotics industry insofar as to limit health and safety risks to human beings. The protection of robots’ users and third parties must be at the heart of all EU legal provisions”; and that “The European Union must create an actionable framework for innovative and reliable AI and Robotics to spur even greater benefits for the European peoples and its common market.”

In a nutshell, these experts have advised us to ‘come back down to earth’, as it were, and to address actual, existing realities instead of unlikely future possible scenarios. It is weighty advice for a number of reasons: apart from dispelling the more fantastical aspects of this discussion, it also calls to mind that it is taking place at a time when other, more pressing issues are being ignored.

Considering everything else that dominates the local news today, one cannot help suspect that such a provocative, outlandish announcement – ‘citizenship for robots’ – may have been intended to deviate public attention from issues of greater national import. Naturally, it is all well and good that the government of Malta tries to project itself as avant-garde – not just with respect to robots, but also regarding new technologies/phenomena such as cryptocurrencies, Blockchain, etc. – but one must also remember that Malta is also undergoing other, less scientifically ‘exciting’ transformations as we speak.

Although no one can deny that Malta is experiencing an economic boom, the converse is that inflation is making inroads into ordinary people’s purchasing power; rent prices are driving even average-salaried individuals out of the property market altogether; and despite a mostly positive budget that didn’t add further tax pressures, it remains a fact that the number of vulnerable social sectors is on the increase.

Clearly, national priorities dictate that we should be paying more attention to the rights of human beings, than to robots or machines (however artificially intelligent these may be). To be fair, government has not completely shied away from such discussions; but one does get the impression that its newfound obsession for the latest fads in technological wizardry may be in part intended to camouflage a few of its own policy failures.

Government has been far less pro-active in addressing bread-and-butter issues such as spiralling rent costs, wage stagnation and diminishing standards of living than it has on the subject of ‘robotic rights’ that even the experts feel are premature and unrealistic. It seems we are more keen on worshipping at the altar of this ‘brave new technological world’, than on focusing on real issues affecting the man in the street.

Ultimately, if we are to join in the international discussion about regulating the robotics industry, we should do so on the basis of the real concerns expressed by experts in the field. Otherwise, by focusing only on the most sensationalist aspects, the discussion risks coming across as a rather childish smokescreen to deflect attention from altogether more serious issues.