Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Ultimate Android

DARPA, the US defence agency responsible for technological research, has been running competitions with defence contractors to design and build robots capable of carrying out useful tasks on the battlefield. Most attempts fail quite miserably, and in this year's competition three failed in all the tasks. One robot, however, passed all of the tests. This doesn't mean we can expect to see the battlefield filled with robots anytime soon, but does show that the aim is likely to be achievable in the coming years.

Apart from the engineering, technological and ethical challenges the biggest issue is one of finance. Few companies in the world can afford to front this level of investment, hence the DARPA competition. Presumably the real prize isn't the government contract but the government investment for development. There's an upside to this process that isn't immediately obvious, and that is the obligation that the company with the research funding will have to Uncle Sam. Governments and the national military may not always be seen as the best guarantors of common sense, but between them there's enough accountability in a decent democracy to address any excesses over time.

But what if the company with the best solution doesn't need the government's cash? One such technologically advanced company is Google - cash rich and acquisition happy it has bought up no fewer than eight robotic companies in the last year. That should secure them some of the best robotic engineers and access to cutting edge patents available. Critically Google doesn't need DARPA's money, although on past experience they'll probably take it. And if you thought KitKat was the best Android yet, just wait until you see what these guys bring to the table.

And on top of this Google are forging a top table in the fields of artificial intelligence, applying it to areas such as self driving vehicles and instant language translation.  There is no doubt, in ten years time the search engine front end of Google will be a side player to the technologies they are developing.

So it is probable that sometime soon Google will amass sufficient technology and knowhow to be a leader in the robot field.  Obviously not all robot applications are military and there are plenty of applications where a machine could be risked to save a human from being put into danger, especially in the field of civil emergencies.  But the biggest drive will come from the military and there will be pressure to generate military applications.  All of this is fine, but what happens if Google disagree with a specific military aim? What if the informal company motto 'Don't be evil' is invoked because someone in the upper echelons of Google believes they should interfere?

Because the way Google are going, by the time this technology is mature enough to count, they will be too big financially for any government to bully, even if they start paying all of their taxes.  Possibly they already are (too big that is).  If they secure the top engineers, hold the best patents and ring-fence the critical technology could they hold any government using their technology to ransom? Will the government need Google's tacit agreement over the deployment of any Google originated technology?

After the credit crunch the big question was should governments let banks get too big to fail.  Perhaps the new question is should they let companies get too big? Period.

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