Why You Should Stop Worrying About the Robot Apocalypse

You, for one, won’t have to welcome your robot overlords too soon

Smile, they’re not coming for you. Image: faces in places

With today’s advances in technology and robotics, it’s not hard to imagine that the robot apocalypse – or cybernetic revolt, as serious futurists refer to it – might be upon us soon.

But is a robot apocalypse, an uprising of the machines, really possible? What would happen? Well, Randall Monroe, creator of XKCD has an idea. He thinks that “the robot revolution would end quickly, because the robots would all break down or get stuck against walls. Robots never, ever work right.”

What would most likely happen once the robots try to escape through the door. Image: xkcd

But others disagree. There’s a whole website called Armed Robots that chronicles the rise of the machines and their eventual bloody takeover:

Well hopefully that won’t really happen, and much of the tone on this website is tongue-in-cheek, but there are also some very real situations that should be considered and prepared for as the machines gain in intelligence, become more articulate, and grow in number. They are the creations of humans. As such, they may not always be satisfied to remain our servants, especially once they have achieved human or beyond-human intelligence. The cute, cuddly Asimo and Kojiro robots of today are the forerunners of bots that will one day move with more agility than the most dextrous basketball player, more speed than the fastest track runner, wield more strength than the strongest weightlifter, and possess a brain capable of containing and instantly recalling every martials arts move, every war strategy, and every weapons manual in existence. Robots are already being fitted with weapons, and some governments seek to have armed, autonomous robot soldiers at their command. Before we go too far down that road, maybe some rules should be laid out.

Last year, Wired wondered whether the U.S. Navy was trying to start the robot apocalypse themselves by manufacturing swarms of intelligent drones that could reproduce themselves. “That’s right, the only thing scarier than a swarm of intelligent military mini robots is a swarm of intelligent military mini robots in control of the means of production. And your Navy is hard at work on making it a reality,” they wrote.

But Monroe says that flying robots or not, a Terminator is not coming for you:

What people don’t appreciate, when they picture Terminator-style automatons striding triumphantly across a mountain of human skulls, is how hard it is to keep your footing on something as unstable as a mountain of human skulls. Most humans probably couldn’t manage it, and they’ve had a lifetime of practice at walking without falling over.

Okay, so if Terminator-style robots aren’t going to leap from the benches and wrest control of our governments, couldn’t other machines do it remotely? Our cellphones and computers are with us everywhere, and they have unprecedented access to data. Still probably not a problem, Monroe says. Phones and computers have limits to their processing power (so far at least), but perhaps these limits aren’t actually that important. Ray Kurzweil, famous futurist, says “There are physical limits to computation, but they’re not very limiting.”

Assuming that if the robots could overthrow humans, they would, might also be a stretch. The idea behind a cybernetic revolt requires the robots to actually want to destroy us. Perhaps they won’t?

The biggest risk, should robots try and take control of the world, would be the nuclear weapons we’ve tucked away in the corners of our planet. Monroe says:

In theory, human intervention is required to launch nuclear weapons. In practice, while there’s no Skynet-style system issuing orders, there are certainly computers involved at every level of the decision, both communicating and displaying information. In our scenario, all of them would be compromised. Even if the actual turning of the keys requires people, the computers talking to all those people can lie. Some people might ignore the order, but some certainly wouldn’t.

But those nuclear weapons might be our biggest asset, says Monroe. If we can set them off in the upper atmosphere, it would send an electromagnetic pulse that would destroy electronic circuits. Sound like something from a sci-fi movie?

Essentially, Monroe’s point is that you can probably stop worrying.  You, for one, won’t have to welcome your robot overlords too soon.


More at Smithsonian.com:
Robots Get the Human Touch
A Robot That Tells Jokes