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Robot Laws [The Future Is Now]

Guest drlogic

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Guest drlogic

The robots are running riot! Quick, bring out the red tapeLeo Lewis, Asia Business Correspondent

When the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov envisioned a future shared by human beings and robots, he predicted that the mechanical servants of tomorrow would be safely controlled by only three simple laws.

But when Japan’s notoriously zealous bureaucracy looks into the future, it sees robots enmeshed in miles of red tape.

Three laws, the robotics experts say, are nowhere near sufficient to ensure human safety in a world where cleaning, carrying and even cooking could one day be performed by machines. So the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has drafted a hugely complex set of proposals for keeping robots in check.

The document, entitled Draft Guidelines to Secure the Safe Performance of Next Generation Robots, was obtained by The Timesyesterday. It extends to nearly 60 pages of civil service jargon. It calls for the formation of a special study group of industrialists, academics, ministry officials and, of course, lawyers to draw up a set of firm proposals to govern the development of robots.

Where Asimov’s first law of robotics states, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harmâ€, the principles of the ministry’s document are less hard and fast. “Risk shall be defined as a combination of the occurrence rate of danger and the actual level of danger,†part of the rubric reads.

“Risk estimation involves estimating the potential level of danger and evaluating the potential sources of danger. Therefore total risk is defined as the danger of use of robots and potential sources of danger.â€

The draft proposal demands that robots be equipped with the means for logging and communicating any injuries they cause to the people they are meant to be helping or protecting. It calls for a central database of all recorded incidents of humans harmed by robots, and demands that it be accessible by all robot-makers.

After a yet more convoluted process of public consultation, the ministry will draft, as early as May, a set of principles to which all robots must conform.

As a rapidly ageing country with a shrinking population of youngsters, Japan imagines robots playing a variety of roles.

To nationalistic politicians, the promise of robots helping the elderly offers a solution to demographic problems that might otherwise be solved by higher levels of immigration.

Robots that clean houses and chat with pensioners are already on the market; next-generation security patrol and nursing robots are, members of the Japan Robotics Association say, “just months awayâ€.

The “helper†robot market as it stands is worth little more than 10 billion yen (£42 million), but the ministry believes that over the next 15 years the growing role of robots will push it to more than 3.3 trillion yen.

Meanwhile, Japanese progress in humanoid robotics continues. A University of Tokyo team recently succeeded in making a human-sized robot that can walk and carry loads of 30kg (65lb). An Osaka based security company has developed a house-sitting robot that will alert police if it finds an intruder or the emergency services if it detects a fire or flooding.

Man v machine

Asimov’s three laws:

— 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

A selection from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry guidelines:

— Via a structure of general regulation and the adoption of that regulation, the planning, manufacturing, administration, repair, sales and use of robots shall observe the need for safety at every stage

— The reasonably predictable misuse of robots shall be defined as the management, sale and use of next-generation robots for purposes not intended by manufacturers

— There should, in principle, be no serious accidents such as fatal accidents involving robots, and the frequency of such accidents should be lowered as far as possible. Affordable multiple security measures should be taken in case one protection method alone is insufficient

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