Scientists teach robots to break Asimov's laws by HITTING people

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012

The first part of Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics states, "A robot may not injure a human being." But at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, six men were beaten by a robot and asked to rate the pain, from mild to oh-dear-god-make-it-stop.

While this conjures images of Mengele-type experiments, there's actually a method to this ouchiness. It turns out the robot arm is learning to "safely interact with humans."

It makes sense. How else can a machine learn not to harm people without learning the parameters—certain kinds of impact at a determined speed—of pain? Still, this description of a robo-smackdown is somewhat disturbing:

They programmed the robot arm to move towards a point in mid-air already occupied by a volunteer's outstretched forearm, so the robot would push the human out of the way. Each volunteer was struck 18 times at different impact energies, with the robot arm fitted with one of two tools—one blunt and round, and one sharper.

The volunteers were then asked to judge, for each tool type, whether the collision was painless, or engendered mild, moderate, horrible or unbearable pain.

Of course, there are two problems with this method of testing. First, we humans have different thresholds of pain; a healthy male of 25 can shrug off robot-induced blunt trauma more easily than an unhealthy female of 75.

Second, this assumes that the human is stationary and does not take into account relative velocity. In other words, if a human falls toward a machine, a minor impact can become a major one.

But if all goes according to plan, robots will learn to reduce the speed at which they move their pincers, whirring blades and Terminator reflexes around humans. In fact, one researcher "put his own arm on the line to show how smart sensors could enable a knife-wielding kitchen robot to stop short of cutting him."

Most humans think that establishing guidelines for human/machine interaction (which will help prevent the inevitable robot rebellion) is an excellent idea. But thanks to scientists like the ones at the University of Ljubljana, it might not be just a good idea. It might one day become the law.

(via New Scientist)

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