Of Robots and Art

Simon Penny's "Pride of Our Young Nation." Image via simonpenny.net

Simon Penny’s “Pride of Our Young Nation.” Image via simonpenny.net

Warbots and robotic art are two ever-growing fields of technology, but they often breeze past each other. The purpose of robotics in warfare seems to be to make conflict more efficient, safer, and smarter. Robotics in art, much like the purpose of a lot of simpler art, is more interested in exploring the limits of awareness, and perhaps using robots to reflect back on our own nature. If the future of warbots is looking to incorporate empathy and greater self awareness in its technology, perhaps artists and military bot designers should work more closely together.

It’s understandable why artists might be wary to get more involved. Though the view is changing, art has at times been very suspicious of technology. Even provocateur Marcel Duchamp said, “technology will either sink or drown art.” The more “scientific” among artists are still occasionally derided by purists as not being artists at all, but entirely scientists or engineers. There a few artists, however that are trying to strike a balance. Simon Penny’s 1989 (wow, old, right?) “Petit Mal” robot aims to create a machine that sets out on its own life experience, not mimicking humans, but it’s own entity. It doesn’t have a set task, either. One can see how a robot that learns from its environment and builds understand, maybe even empathy, over time could be of use to warbot developers; perhaps with a bit more rigidity in programming.

Military robotics, which certainly spends more than any other player in the robotics field and has the most at stake, must think carefully about what humanoid or self aware traits to use for its bots. The question of empathy gets hard in issues like friendly fire, or distinguishing between an enemy and a civilian. Dr. Robert Sparrow of Australia’s Monash University writes:

The fact that the principle of discrimination is extremely context-dependent suggests that autonomous weapon systems would have to have a very high level of autonomy indeed to be able to make the judgments necessary in order to comply with its requirements. Similarly, decisions about what constitutes a level of force proportionate to the threat posed by enemy forces are extremely complex and context dependent and it seems unlikely that machines will be able to make these decisions reliably for the foreseeable future.

It’s quite the heavy burden for robot designers. Robotic art, of course, has much less pressure on its success and thus progresses at a slower pace. Still, artists in this field do have the time to think more about the emotional facet to robotics. Early this year, Charles Q. Choi wrote for Scientific American about the remote possibility of self aware robots developing mental illnesses. It sounds crazy, perhaps, but as an ever present issue in the human component of war, it shouldn’t be disregarded in the development of warbots. Artistic bots are slower and more rudimentary than warbots, but I do wonder if someday military engineers and designers can welcome their more philosophical viewpoint on the increasingly important issue of how robots play a part in our world and our wars.

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