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Robo-rights speculation rubbished by researchers

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UK robotics boffins this week pooh-poohed the notion of evolving machine intelligence and the possibility of that old sci-fi staple, a future robot-rights movement.

Academic droid-fanciers instead suggested that issues around robots in the near future would be primarily human ones.

Government-sponsored futurologists predicted in December that "calls may be made for human rights to be extended to robots", within 21-50 years. The Horizon Scanning Centre at the Office of Science and Innovation also hinted that "this may be balanced with citizen responsibilities (e.g. voting, paying tax)", or even "compulsory military service".

Regular Reg readers will be well aware that there are, in fact, many robots in the military already. But they tend to be purpose-built for their jobs, rather than draftees. The armed forces seem unlikely to bother with press-ganging ordinary civilian robots into service, the more so as they tend to be specialised too. A Red Dwarf Talkie Toaster is never going to make a deadly machine of war, no matter how you reprogram it.

But the government fortune-tellers didn't stop there.

"Robots' rights would invariably clash with the property rights of their owners," they warned. They also said that "the extension of rights to robotic beings could be manipulated through programming and mechanical abilities at faster rates of reproduction than humans", seeming to hint at armies of new robot citizens outbreeding the fleshies and coded to vote at the behest of manipulative human masters. Forget about illegal immigrants: robots are the enemy within.

But heavyweight boffins contacted by the Guardian for an article published yesterday had the cold water ready.

"[This report] is certainly not based on science," said Owen Holland, a noted machine-consciousness man at Essex University. Noel Sharkey of Sheffield Uni said it was "a fairy tale".

That said, the academics had a few interesting notions of their own.

"It would be great if all the military were robots and they could fight each other," said Sharkey. Presumably, once one side's war-bots had overcome the other's, the losing human and civ-bot population would meekly submit to the victorious droid army without bloodshed. But Sharkey felt that this utopia was unlikely. Instead, he worried about governments starting an excessive number of robotised conflicts.

"If you don't have body bags coming home, you can start a war much more easily," he said, suggesting that human soldiers are actually a restraining factor in warfare.

Mr Sharkey was also concerned about robot policing, which is of course already a reality (sort of). He feared the coming of mobile robot CCTV patrolmen and brutal droid crowd-control systems (again, already on the drawing boards).

"Imagine the miners' strike with robots armed with water cannon," he told the Guardian, though there was no word on how this would be worse than what actually happened. Of course, if the government ball-gazers are right, in future it might be the robots on strike - perhaps objecting to being conscripted for an endless, unreported robot war overseas, or cheesed off at being made to pay taxes. Or, just possibly, annoyed at being required to service the filthy lustful desires of cruel human owners: Mr Sharkey reportedly suggested that "vibrating sex-robots would be available soon for those bored with blow-up dolls".

Deep waters, these. But one thing seems certain - the money paid to fund the Office of Science and Innovation and the nation's university robotics departments is certainly not wasted. Not when you consider the entertainment benefits, anyway. ®

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