I was quite struck last week by the video we watched of Big Dog, the robot developed by DARPA to act as a pack mule to accompany armed forces in combat. Big dog is a sign of the major strides being made in robotics and all of us who had not seen it in action were suitably impressed, not least by the way big dog seemed to be perfectly in tune with the background music.
When I went to look it up again on youtube during the week the video I found did not have any background music and so I heard it’s actual sound which to quote Dylan Moran sounded a little “like a typewriter eating tinfoil being kicked down the stairs”. One of the top comments on the video posed the question “Where have I heard that sound before? Oh yeah – my deepest darkest nightmares”.
That response really evoked a reaction in me. For me it showcased a fear of new technology, that these advances could become a Frankenstein’s monster that we can no longer control. I want to ask if these fears are legitimate or if they’re just another example of the fear of change and the unknown? It could be argued that many people feared air travel for a long time and I think that at the time of the Hindenburg disaster for example, a strong case for ending the aviation industry could have been made. But today these incidents are long forgotten and the vast majority of people would agree that widespread, efficient, safe and affordable air travel has made the world a far better and more accessible place.
When we were told that Big Dog was developed by DARPA it was quickly pointed out as evidence that they have done at least something good in their research efforts. Impressive as big dog is the cynical side of me thinks of the reported 3 - 5,000 people who have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in recent years by unmanned drones like in the video above according to the bureau of investigative journalism. This technology seems to be ultimately leading to the development of unmanned, fully autonomous weapons systems as outlined here. Human rights watch has called for pre-emptive bans on any such weapons “before killer robots cross the line from science fiction to feasibility”.