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Journal: Concerns over robot warriors in our future 1

Journal by joshmccormack

In lots of sci-fi movies where robots/computers start slaughtering people
there's some point where these machines decide to disobey their instructions
not to harm people, and thus their sentience is manifested in their free will.

I haven't seen anyone talking about the required code 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' to be in these machines to
prevent them from killing people, either of their 'own' volition or from
orders. If anything, news on the recent interest the Pentagon as taken in using
Segways on the battlefield as Mobile Autonomous Robots
(http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/150662_segway02.html) suggest the
contrary will be true. News of Sony's QRIO humanoid robot, which can run, jump
and recover from falls focuses attention on the advances in the robotics field,
one that seemed to have lost public attention decades ago when it was apparent
that robots were not very human looking, and worked mainly to assemble cars in
what could be described as repetitive, fairly simple work.

In response to concerns over robots like QRIO (see lots of them here: http://www.androidworld.com/prod01.htm) being developed into killing machines, some people have pointed out flaws. They're short (a couple of feet tall), expensive and not as flexible and resourceful as humans. These are all probably true at this point, but over time they will get cheaper, could be made larger and certainly will be even more capable. Already the advances made in what a relatively inexpensive, consumer oriented robot like this can do - run and jump, are incredible and only suggest further advances will be similarly amazing.

I see no reason to doubt that robots will only get more attractive as an eventual replacement for conventional ground troops, but just because they look humanoid and they may be used as weapons doesn't mean they have to function just like a foot soldier. There are a lot of things robots can do that people can't, won't, don't like to or have difficulty doing.

From the 'replace foot soldiers' perspective, imagine how the Indian army could use robots in Kashmir to defend against rebels and Pakistan. The conditions there are beyond belief. It's far below freezing, the air is thin and it's isolated. (see this article for details: http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/south/05/20/siachen.kashmir/)

Robotic sentries could be stationed at strategic points to be on watch for months at a time, never getting bored, tired or cold. If an enemy were detected it could fire on a target from a great distance, doing all the math to compensate for distance and wind, never shivering from the cold, and then run at the target or another high point, unafraid of the dangers of falling.

For a 'non foot soldier' scenario, robots could be used as replacements for bombs where a higher degree of surgical precision is needed to avoid collateral damage, and even to get confirmations on the identities of targets hit. Heavily armed and armored they could withstand harder landings than man, resist more hits, and no matter what the price they're expendable, allowing more radical moves than may normally be available.

If you need military (not necessarily lethal) robot examples that are non-humanoid and are being used or currently tested take a look at the DARPA contest involving autonomous ground vehicles (http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/), and this article (http://msnbc.msn.com/Default.aspx?id=3068872&p1=0) that mentions how the makers of the Roomba robot vacuum are working on a military robot, and look at this article (http://www.jfcom.mil/newslink/storyarchive/2003/pa072903.htm) from the US Joint Forces Command that spells out in black and white that the US Military is interested in robots, just in case you couldn't figure that out!

It's a given that true robots, not remote controlled machines, but autonomous, computer powered creations will be used for killing and could conceivably be used by the 'wrong' people (presumably anyone who might want to kill you or yours). So the question of whether robots could gain free will and would then have a motivation to wipe out humans is moot. Humans want to wipe out humans, so if they have robots that can kill, then robots will be killing humans. It's really just a question of scale, and if you happen to be on the killing or killed side.

The final relevant issue on this is how well the robots are programmed. How well will they differentiate friend from foe, combatant from non-combatant, and how well will they be able to resist being reprogrammed by someone other than their owner?

We live in interesting times where science fiction starts looking a whole lot like fiction.

User Journal

Journal: Non-work use of Internet at work in debate

Journal by joshmccormack

A column in the December 1st, 2003 issue of Information Week had opposing views on non-work related use of the Internet while at work. On the one side, people didn't see it as a problem as long as the work got done and nothing inappropriate was being done. On the other, concerns over liability, union organizing and wast of time and money. I'm not going to address the merits and shortcomings of both sides, but rather raise some problems I see with much of the debate itself.

First off, there's the idea that employees are owned and should be squeezed for all the juice they can produce. This is assuming the employees are the problem and more work should be funneled their way. If positions have specific responsibilities, this should not necessarily be so. It's rare to be told what your specific responsibilities are, though. Instead of being empowered to manage particular projects, employees are more frequently left without voice or ownership in the work they do. Instead, one or more other people are put in charge of deciding what they do. Communication between decision making and execution is rare. Supervision, since one person is essentially the brain and the other the limbs, tends to be of the hovering and annoying variety.

The second half of the 'employees are owned' idea encourages employees to make themselves too valuable to stay at a company. If someone is pushed to work at full speed at all times they will eventually do a great deal more than they were ostensibly hired to do (ostensibly since the specific requirements are so rare), yet they will doubtfully get a comparative increase in compensation. If the employee is in fact the diligent, hard worker who would not spend any time on non-business activities they must, to be true to this spirit of industriousness, seek a better employer.

Essentially, employers need to be careful and consider that making their employees better employees requires a comparable effort on their part to be better employers. This is certainly not only about money, but certainly is about money.

Another point to consider in cracking down on employees using the Internet for non-work functions is an employees willingness to submit to this behavior from management. Since an employee is in fact not owned by their employer, but actually a partner in an agreement to exchange labor for compensation, employees should keep in mind that people may hate to be around them.

The last couple of years have been a buyers market for employers, where applicants have happily taken jobs they hate for half what they once got, but at some point things will probably turn around. Employers should consider if people are able to live functional, happy lives while working. If they can't, and you're a lucky employer, they'll never work a minute more than they have to and they'll max out sick/personal/vacation days so they can be away from you and do things like pay their bills, buy their family gifts, and plan trips. If you're not lucky they'll go elsewhere where they're treated like adults.

Lest you scoff at this, I knew someone who left a company they had just recently started with because there was no water cooler. That was their tolerance for an unpleasant work environment.

I also had a boss who everyone loved, because he treated us with respect. He told us he once had a boss who waited by the door to make sure everyone was exactly on time. He hated that and told us he wanted us to get our work done, and if we were in a little late it wasn't a big deal as long as work and obligations were met. The manager of the department right next to ours created an environment recruiters I know who served him called a turnstyle. When my boss left so did 16 people from our department. They knew they would then be working for someone more like the turnstyle manager. Just imagine replacing 16 people and a manager - just because the environment is so unpleasant and repressive. Is it worth it?

User Journal

Journal: The Dangerous Allure of Technology Over Relationships

Journal by joshmccormack

Technology certainly continues to make gathering, analyzing and spreading data easier every day. In the term data I'm including sales statistics, email and really just about anything that can be transferred digitally.

Just think back to the time before the Internet and what job hunting was like. You couldn't blast your resume out to thousands of employers, you had to at least lick an envelope and pay some postage. Even that was removing a person from any sort of a relationship in the exercise - you could ask someone to take a chance and hire you, without the work of getting to see them, without the humiliation of having to approach someone, hat in hand, and pitch your case for a chance at their company.

But transmitting your resume electronically removes an applicant so many steps from the relationship it's not just a matter of emailing or mailing. You don't need a physical copy of your resume, you don't need to know the address of the company you want to work at - you don't even need to know about the job listing, since you can just post your resume to be searched.

The apparent benefits of this are vast. You get to more efficiently reach out to more companies. However, it's pretty well documented that this method of job hunting is not very effective. The newspapers are full of stories of people saying they've been looking for work for years, mailing/faxing and emailing out hundreds and thousands of resumes. This despite books like the ubiquitous What Color is Your Parachute? advising people to job-hunt in person. Less than 10% of people have gotten their jobs through these methods.

Of course the same thing is happening to other relationships. Stories of Pepsi switching over their deliveries to retail stores from drivers discretion to decisions made by software fed by handhelds are popping up in tech journals with regularity. Again, seems like a great idea. Maybe the software is fed by tons of market research and advanced algorithms. But conversely, you're overlooking the value of a live person's decision and the knowledge they gain from their relationships. I can imagine a great deal of subtlety involved in these decisions, and also preferable treatment be given to products delivered by someone who shows a concern for their clients business.

That's not to say that technology can't augment a system without removing the close contact that can be so valuable, often in unpredictable ways. It is a great temptation, though, to do things cheaper and easier courtesy of technology, and in the process lose out because people like to deal with people, and they like to be treated like people.

User Journal

Journal: Department of Homeland Security chooses Microsoft

Journal by joshmccormack

The Department of Homeland Security had the opportunity with it's recent selection of a provider of desktop and server software to set an example for choices based on the security of a providers offerings, and to show the American public that they weren't yet another bureaucratic money pit. With their selection of Microsoft to the tune of $90 million they failed in both respects.

The poor security of Microsoft products across the board has been shown time and again. Nearly every major exploit, virus and penetration due to software weakness has only affected Microsoft operating systems and software. In the last week alone the DirectX vulnerability was found, Swiss researchers found a way to hack Windows passwords in seconds, the MS DCOM buffer overflow vulnerability and the HTML to RTF conversion vulnerability.

In the July 21st, 2003 article in eWeek on this decision vice president and chief security counsel at Solutionary, Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska suggested that now that Microsoft has been given this contract they will improve the security of their software, and that there really was no other choice - "Were they going to go out and buy Linux? I don't think so," Rasch is recorded saying.

First, the selection of a company widely seen as being deficient in security, possibly with an idea that this will encourage them to be more focused on security is both ridiculous and offensive. Instead of being encouraged to change Microsoft will likely use this contract as an endorsement when marketing the security of their products. And is the DHS in the job of selecting unsuitable vendors in the hopes they will take advantage of this opportunity and improve?

And what about Mr. Rasch's question on why the DHS apparently had no other vendors to choose from? I question whether due diligence was done in choosing between vendors, and I would be interested in finding out what the criteria for the selection of those vendors were.

The DHS needs could most likely have been met in the form of several operating systems, all of them with better security than MS offerings, and many of them at a better price.

Most likely the general software needs of the DHS are a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, browser and email client. Solaris or MacOSX could have been selected for both desktop and server needs and satisfied these needs, while having a much better reputation for security. These are commercial offerings and would be available with a comparable set of guarantees, warranties and training programs as whatever MS is offering.

Of course the DHS could have chosen Linux, or FreeBSD on the desktop and OpenBSD on the server. And while some money would be wisely spent in encouraging development and getting things together in just the right way, I'm sure the bill would be less than a tenth of what MS is being paid. And the security of these options, especially OpenBSD, is without question superior to those of MS. Additionally, the DHS could have looked for help and guidance to another government agency, the NSA, which is sponsoring development of a secure Linux called SELinux.

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