Sun, Jun

Police Robots: Lethal Weapons


ACCORDING TO LIZ - 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 harm" – so why, last month, was the San Francisco Board of Supervisors considering allowing San Francisco cops to use robots that kill? 

Claiming such force would only be used in extraordinary circumstances… is extraordinary. Since when have police forces obtained portable weapons that do not end up on the black market? 

Let slip the dogs of war!

If Los Angeles even contemplates such a move, I’m heading out of state. 

On November 29th, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to approve remote-operated killer robots in response to complaints of increased crime, especially violent crime, given such automatons are theoretically engineered only to kill “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent, and officers cannot subdue the threat after using alternative force options or de-escalation tactics.” 

But it’s not about the robot, stupid. It’s all about the operator. 

Who can trust the inner truant-child of a police officer (or a president) when given license to kill? Who can trust the CIA or military drone supervisors when war games allow them to macerate the enemy while the operator hides in safety? 

The Dallas police used a bomb-disposal robot with an explosive device on its manipulator arm to kill a suspect in 2016, and earlier this century an American soldier duct-taped an explosive to a Marcbot surveillance robot and drove it remotely up to a checkpoint… 

Yes, we don’t want the good guys to die and we want our police and military to protect us, but sci-fi obliteration by video-game is the ultimate act of inhumanity. 

“Very well-trained and very skilled” facilitators of robotic murdering machines do NOT operate in the public’s best interest. Just because someone unquestioningly follows orders well does not guarantee that he will stand up and challenge a superior who has gone over to the dark side. 

And imagine the streets of Los Angeles when these mechanisms “escape” from the LAPD’s goodie box and are sold into the hands of gangbangers. When the escalation of battles in our neighborhoods soar, and our police officers run to the rescue with their arsenal of even more war toys. 

In San Francisco, vociferous criticism from residents and from groups across the country drove their Board of Supervisors to beat a hasty retreat, again voting 8-3 last Tuesday but this time to prohibit police from using killer robots. 

Why do we really need more death and destruction? Do we really want to live our lives out in a war zone? 

Other and more humane options exist to combat the rise of crime across the country, the result of both the pandemic shutdown with resultant economic hardships and the increase in inappropriate behavior as encouraged by the MAGA mob, but the boys in blue want to show off their flashier toys. 

And there’s another aspect of robotic danger – one that has been a bugbear for many years with arguments on both sides. Will robots take jobs away from human beings? 

Initially, mechanization simply eased the physical demands of labor and sped up assembly line production – with its obvious failings satirized in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times

Until now the challenges were primarily to the workforce involving physical activities. Whether welding tools or a programmable interface, a typewriter or a computer, you still needed a person to operate and problem-solve. 

Then the world was introduced to Watson on “Jeopardy!” 

Were those white collar jobs so secure anymore? 

OpenAI is an artificial Intelligence company focused on developing text and chat bots. Their ChatGPT program that responds to user prompts was recently made available to the general public for beta-testing and has composed stories, researched complex articles and de-bugged computer code. 

 Far faster than any human. And a New York Times article reports that the quality ain’t that shabby.

In fact, it may even leave Google in the technological dust. 

If Artificial Intelligence, aka machine-learning aka A.I., continues to exponentially expand, robots will be able to do everything people can, only better. Except bleed, except feel. 

In a survey of industry researchers about the potential effects of A.I., almost half felt that there was a ten percent chance that repercussions of their work could lead to human extinction. 

Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein aside, we are living in parlous times and in pursuing the next great breakout, developers could easily program robot thought to prioritize goals that conflict with the very existence of humanity. Accidental or not, the results would be the same. 

Current robots that are dependent on their operators already behave in ways that their creators don’t intend. 

ChatGPT beta-users immediately came up with workarounds to allow for racist and sexist references despite OpenAI’s specific efforts to prevent the program from generating such responses. 

Like letting the atomic age genie out of the bottle with no way to put it back, A.I. is poised to open up a technology that even its creators don’t fully understand… and relinquishing control to the general and oftentimes murderous public to muck around with.

This is not free speech. This is giving a toddler a live hand grenade with the pin partway drawn. 

Angelenos, Californians, Americans, citizens of the world, isn’t it time now to lay down our weapons and join together to face the existential threats that confront us – climate change, demagogues, unregulated A.I. 

The hour is upon us or there may not be a future, not for our great-grandchildren. Or for us. 

An updated version of ChatGPT is in the works. And it’s within reason that these bots will be able to move beyond OpenAI’s purview and create full-scale robots with the ability to replicate themselves and eradicate the human stain from the earth once and for all time.


(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.) 

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