Law in Contemporary Society
Today I came across a Forbes article based on a brief phone interview with Eben. The focus was on internet security, specifically in the context of mobile technology. As a huge fan of Asimov, I found it particularly interesting because of Eben’s reference to the First Law of Robotics, and how science fiction has generally predicted the interaction between humans and robots.

The First Law of Robotics states that “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” According to Eben, what our modern day “robots” – our smartphones – do to us on a daily basis is exactly the opposite, and he lists a variety of ways in which this is done.

I consider myself a strong believer in internet privacy and freedom from technology tyranny by our government, and related issues, which is the main reason I’m taking Eben’s Law in the Internet Society class this Fall.

However, in practice, I find myself not that concerned with how it affects me on a day to day basis. Whenever prompted to “share my location” or “share my usage statistics” I usually acquiesce without a second thought. My reasoning is that it will probably help the system work more efficiently, which benefits me in the long run, and more importantly I don’t believe the government is interested in me as an individual, or my whereabouts.

I’m not a terrorist – past, present, or future. I’m not involved in organized crime. I’m just not the type of person “they” would be concerned about. All I am is a numerical user ID, one of billions, stored in a database, with digitized usage and location statistics. And I’m probably not the only person who thinks this way, if they think about it at all.

Of course, I understand that internet security and privacy is MUCH broader in its implications than just to my personal circumstances, but the question I asked myself was, is my “robot” really harming ME? I know it probably is in some esoteric way, in that it is allowing someone to extract value from my use of it, but I just don’t FEEL like I’m being harmed in any way. Ignorance is bliss?

-- JasonPyke - 28 Jun 2012

I have to admit, I'm right there with you on most of this. Of course, it's easier for me to be worry-free about my information, because I'm still using a RAZR phone (and I don't mean the Droid one); there's only so much information to be intercepted from a T9 text. I understand you're not concerned about any investigation now, but if you use your degree to craft social change then there's no guarantee you won't get under VIP skin. In any case, I think a key question is whether you assign any independent value to the privacy of your information. I share your mindset to a large extent, I think; I'm not worried about my information being particularly interesting to the powers that be. Yet I still don't want the world to know what I'm up to, where, and with who on a 24/7 basis, even if no one cares.

-- MarcLegrand - 28 Jun 2012

It is perceptive of Eben to apply the Laws of Robotics to the devices we carry around and use. But the trouble I've always had with the Laws is that they are not laws of nature or science. They are laws of judgment and emotion. Law #1, for example, is that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. But what does it mean to injure? Is collecting data on our habits and selling that information to advertisers 'injury?' It probably depends on whom you ask. I think it's injury, but my 14 year old cousin who posts about every little thing on Facebook probably does not consider it injury. Thus, it is a law that requires judgment.

Since interpretation of the law is fact-sensitive and relies on human emotion and experience, I can't see how the laws of robotics could ever be programmed into a robot, or any device for that matter. At least until we build our devices to exhibit judgment and emotion... but that's probably not going to happen for the foreseeable future.

-- HarryKhanna 28 Jun 2012

You're certainly right on one level, but it seems to me that you're pointing out a somewhat illusory problem. Even if we can't program our smartphones to use their judgment to not harm us, we could certainly work on programming communications and networking platforms that don't share our information with anyone who has the money to buy it.

-- MarcLegrand 28 Jun 2012

I agree with your suggestion. But it has nothing to do with the Laws of Robotics. It is a freestanding policy choice, divorced from Asimov's laws.

-- HarryKhanna 28 Jun 2012

I think we're in agreement on all substantive levels, but I don't agree that this has "nothing to do with" the Laws. The First Law, as a principle, can be a guiding principle that developers have in mind when they design devices and software, independently of whether or not it can be directly programmed into those things as used in Asimov's stories.

-- MarcLegrand 28 Jun 2012

I think the most interesting part of Eben's reference to the three laws is exactly that it serves to point out the disconnect between the robots in Asimov's stories and our cell phones. I agree with Harry that the Laws as Asimov conceived can't really be programmed into our cell phones. And of course, as both Harry and Marc agree, the underlying message is the freestanding policy choice question of how to most responsibly use technology (a theme that clearly underlies the Three Laws, but given the scope we're discussing here, is probably most similar to the Zeroth Law introduced later). But I think Eben's reference highlights a perverse difference between the problem we're facing and the problems that implicate the laws in Asimov's stories, namely our own complicity in creating the problem.

Our cell phones are nowhere close to Asimov's self-sustaining, mobile, and importantly autonomously thinking robots. As a result, the root of possible injuries to human beings are completely different in our world than in Asimov's. In the Asimov universe, because robots are autonomous, the concern is always a robot choosing to harm a human being, thus the Three Laws were created. In only one story, "Cal," does a robot actually choose to kill a human being in violation of the first law. Other injuries to humans are due to damages to the positronic brain ("Robot Dreams") and possible ambiguities of who is a human being. Importantly though, even though Asimov contemplates people using robots to injure other people (implied in the second law), all violations of the laws that could injure humans are accomplished through the robot itself. There is never a story where a person engineers a robot to harm another person. Asimov's robot universe is based entirely on robot vs. human and the concomitant complexities. It is not about human vs. human with the use of robots. But this is precisely the situation that we potentially have.

Our cell phones can't move, can't talk, and can't make decisions by themselves. Thus any danger from them must be generated by ourselves, unlike the concern in the Asimov universe. Even more concerning, unlike the situation where one person purposively programs a robot to harm another, a man vs. man situation, no one has programmed our cell phones to intentionally harm us. Rather we allow them to harm us through our own inaction. We hare ignorantly harming ourselves, a step removed from another person harming us through a robot (which is never really discussed by Asimov) and a second step removed from robots autonomously harming us. So no, I agree with Harry that Eben's mention of the three laws isn't really relevant to our situation as they are treated in Asimov's stories. But what resonated with me was precisely this disconnect and why it exists. Unlike the Asimov universe, we don't need to three laws to protect us from robots, rather we need them to protect us from ourselves.

-- AlexWang - 09 Jul 2012

What about the way they have changed our brains? Eben's article didn't mention this, but we discussed it in class a little bit. I love my iPhone, but since I've had it I've noticed that my attention span has decreased significantly. When I'm waiting somewhere, instead of pulling out a book to read, I pull out my phone, check my email, play Words with Friends, check Facebook, and check the news. I check my email ALL THE TIME but I have no reason to do that. I wish CLS would install cellphone signal blockers in the classrooms, because if I have my phone, I'm going to check it. I recognize that this kind of behavior is bad for me, but I can't stop.

-- KatherineMackey - 08 Jul 2012

There was a great Gary Larson Far Side cartoon I saw on this issue, which I can't find online but this is a crude approximation. Don't know how insightful it is but it's funny and thought i'd share.

Haha, hilarious

-- AlexWang - 09 Jul 2012

Woah, interesting discussion! The subject matter is kind of near and dear to me – particularly the point Jason and Katherine made: “I recognize that this kind of behavior is bad for me, but I can't stop.”

That looks like a good encapsulation of the ‘harm’ robots do us. It’s a common sentiment – I’ve said the same thing myself tons of times – but its commonality is part of the problem. I think it drastically misframes the issue at hand.

In that sentence, the blame is personal, the failure or the harm is self- or other-imposed. It’s just one more guilt complex, and robots (technology and/or its controllers) become something we as humans need another Messiah (more willpower, divine CLS intervention, or maybe the apocalypse) to save us from.

Removing the element of ‘saving from harm’ may require recharacterizing the entire issue: rather than man vs. technology, what about man within technology? I’m leaning on Heidegger here – but also an awesome essay by someone named Edward Ballard – I’ll quote really quick –

Technology as salvation from the darkness: “The image of someone in a machine, successfully complementing his weakness by means of its mechanisms. From every other page of our magazines we are presented for example with a businessman in an airplane, a girl in a car, the astronaut in his module, the worker in a gantry crane, or the data processor in a computer complex. Each seeks to assure us that we too may complement our weakness with machines and thus get securely on the way to technological salvation.”

I love this quote because every single image is commonplace, and every single one brings out strands of this man in machine dialogue. You start asking: What kind of thing in man is not inside a robot?

To me that’s the real question, before harm or control or saving – and I think it’s wrong to consign the question to metaphysics or theology. Since we live together in a technological world, this is a pretty basic question, one that requests a common answer.

Rather than arguing man vs tech, attacking and defending and harming and saving, like in a court case or a war – the first step is seeing, delineating. Re-framing the frames. Instead of laying blame on ourselves (“I can’t stop”) or others (Mark Zuckerberg, iPhones, Wikipedia), I think it makes better sense to look at what is a self and what is an other. Man from inside a machine is not really the same thing as man inside the agora or the warzone. Probably. It’s a return to the Sesame Street version: which of these things is not like the other? How are they different? Do they have to be? Where?

Separating the ‘saving’ dialectic from the ‘seeing’ one is crucial. You pretty much have to feel harm, by definition, but you don’t have to feel anything in order to see something. If it turns out that ‘the modern we’ is inseparable from or invulnerable to our technology (“I just don’t FEEL like I’m being harmed”), where does that leave us? And why all the worry? If otoh something visceral inside man rejects the idea of man as computer, as completely contained in and explained by technology, what is that thing and whence from and whence going?

Long post, sorry.

-- JenniferDoxey - 10 Jul 2012


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r14 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:05:27 - IanSullivan
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