Debating Killer Robots

Last week, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Ethics and Technology held a debate between Ron Arkin and Robert Sparrow over the ethical challenges and benefits of lethal autonomous robots (LARS) or “killer robots.” The debate comes amidst increasing attention to LARS, as the United Nations has recently agreed to discuss a potential ban on the weapons under the Convention on Conventional Weapons framework early next year. Moreover, we see more media attention in major media outlets, like the Washington Post, the New York Times, Foreign Policy and here on Huffington Post as well. With NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Article 36 also taking up the issue, as well as academics and policy makers, much more attention may also be on the horizon.

My purpose here is to press on some of the claims made by Prof. Arkin in his debate with Prof. Sparrow. Arkin’s work on attempting to formulate an “ethical governor” for LARs in combat has been one of the few attempts by academics to espouse the virtues of these weapons. In Arkin’s terms, the ethical governor acts as a “muzzle” on the system, whereby any potentially unethical (or better formulated “illegal”) action would be prohibited. Prof. Arkin believes that one would program the relevant rules of engagement and laws governing conflict into the machine, and thus any prohibited action would be impossible to take. Sparrow, a pioneer in the debate on LARs, as well as one of the founding members of the International Committee on Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), is vehemently skeptical about the benefits of such weapons.

Some of the major themes in the debate over LARs revolve around the issue of responsibility, legality, and prudential considerations, such as the proliferation of the weapons in the international system. Today, I will merely focus on the responsibility argument, as that was a major source of tension in the debate between Arkin and Sparrow. The responsibility argument runs something like this: since a lethal autonomous weapon either locates preassigned targets or chooses targets on its own, and then fires on those targets, there is no “human in the loop” should something go wrong. Indeed, since there is no human being making the decision to fire, if a LAR kills the wrong target, then there is no one to hold responsible for that act because a LAR is not a moral agent that can be punished or held “responsible” in any meaningful way.

The counter, made by those like Arkin in his recent debate, is that there is always a human involved somewhere down the line, and thus it is the human that “tasks” the machine that would be held responsible for its actions. Indeed, Arkin in his comments, stated that human soldiers are no different in this respect, and that militaries attempt to dehumanize and train soldiers into becoming unthinking automatons anyway. Thus, the moment a commander “tasks” a human solider or a LAR with a mission, the commander is responsible. Arkin explicitly noted that “they [LARs] are agents that make decisions that human beings have told them to make,” and that ultimately if we are looking to “enforce” ethical action in a robot, then designers, producers and militaries are merely “enforcing [the] morality made by humans.”

However, such a stance is highly misleading and flies in the face of commonsense thinking (as well as legal thinking) about responsibility in the conduct of hostilities. For instance, if a commander tasks Soldier B to undertake a permissible mission, where Soldier B will have very little, if any, communication with the commander, and in the course of Soldier B’s attempts at completing the mission, Soldier B kills protected people (like noncombatants, i.e. those not partaking in hostilities), then we would NOT hold the commander responsible. We would hold Soldier B responsible. For during the execution of his orders, Soldier B took a variety of intervening decisions on how to complete his “task.” It is only in the event of patently illegal orders that we hold commanders responsible under a doctrine of command responsibility.

Arkin might respond here that his “ethical governor” would preclude any actions like targeting of protected persons. For instance, Arkin discusses a “school bus detector” whereby any object that looks to be a school bus would be off-limits as a potential target, and so the machine could not fire upon that object. Problem solved, case closed. But is it?

Not by a long shot. Protected status in persons or things is not absolute. Indeed, places of worship, while normally protected become legitimate targets if they are used for military purposes (like a sniper in the bell tower, or storing munitions inside). Thus programming a machine that would never fire on school buses only says to the adversary – “hey! You should go hide in school buses!” Thus it is the dynamic nature of war and conflict that is so hard to discern, and attempts at codifying this ambiguity are so highly complex that the only way to accomplish this is to create an artificially intelligent machine. For otherwise, creating a machine that gives tactical and strategic advantage to the enemy, or in Arkin’s words providing “mission erosion” is beyond a waste of money. Thus creating a machine that would not become a Trojan Horse requires that it is artificially intelligent and can discern that the school bus is really a school bus being used for nonmilitary purposes — a machine that, it appears, Arkin would be uncomfortable with in the field.

The final argument in Arkin’s arsenal is that if the machine, artificially intelligent or not, performs better at upholding the laws of war than human warfighters, then so be it. More lives saved equals more lives saved, period. Yet this seems to miss a couple of key points. The first is that the data that we have regarding all of the atrocities committed by service men and women are data points of when things go wrong. We do not have data on when things go according to plan – for that is considered a ‘nonobservation’. Think in terms of deterrence. One cannot tell if deterrence is working, only when it is not. Thus saying that humans perform so poorly is only telling part of a much larger tale, and one, I’m not certain, requires robots as a solution to all of humanity’s moral failings. The second is Sparrow’s main point: using such machines seems profoundly disrespectful of the adversary’s humanity. As Sparrow argues, using machines to kill distant others, where no human person takes even a moment to consider their demise, robs warfare of what little humanity it possesses.

Thus I hope that while we continue to think about why using robots in war is problematic, from moral, legal and prudential perspectives, we also continue to press on their touted “benefits.”

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REVIEW: The Nest Thermostat

nest thermostat

Over the summer, my wife and I bought a house.

When it started to get cold here in the Northeast, we decided to get a Nest thermostat.

Nest is a company co-founded by Tony Fadell, who built the original iPod. Fadell is CEO, and his mission to improve the “unloved” products in our homes, like the thermostat. Recently, Nest launched the Nest Protect, a smoke detector. 

The Nest thermostat is an Internet connected device that learns your habits and adjusts automatically after figuring out when you’re home and when you’re away. It also has a smartphone app that can control the thermostat remotely. 

Prior to installing the Nest, we just had a normal thermostat that was entirely manual. It did its job, but we had to always remember to adjust the temperature. One weekend, we left the house and forgot to turn down the heat, so we were burning money. Other times, we would be in the house, turn down the heat before going to bed, but would wake up freezing. 

After a week or so in the cold weather, we decided to get a Nest. I didn’t do much research into rival thermostats. I had heard good things about the Nest. I liked the company and the CEO, so I decided to dive in. 

The Nest is $250, which makes it more expensive than any similar thermostat we’ve seen on Amazon

I think it’s worth the money because it’s easy to use, it works brilliantly with my phone, and it should save me money this winter.

Here’s a run down of my experience with Nest after two weeks. 

thermostatInstallation was a snap. If you’re worried about installing a Nest, you shouldn’t be. I just took off my thermostat’s face plate, and snapped a photo of the wires underneath.

On Nest’s website, a few check boxes made sure my house was compatible with the thermostat. After I bought the thermostat, I just screwed in a base plate, snapped in the next piece then reconnected the wires. From there, I had to punch in my WiFi password, then Nest did a software update and I was pretty much good to go.

Except, I wasn’t! I mis-connected one of the wires. I had the Rh mixed up with the Rc, or something like that. Nest’s website very quickly helped me figure out the mistake, and I was all set. 

It took about a week for the Nest to figure out our schedule. For the first week, we were controlling the Nest either manually, or through the Nest app. Then, after a week, the thermostat decided to take over. 

nest appThe problem with Nest’s automated system is that we don’t have a truly routine schedule. Some nights we’re home from work at 7 PM. Other nights we don’t come back, we go out with friends. On the weekends, it’s a total crap shoot. We’ve been out of the house a lot on the weekends, so the Nest has no clue about what to do. 

The good thing, though, is that the Nest’s smartphone app lets us control the thermostat. I love, love, love the ability to control the thermostat from my phone. During the first week, we would turn on the Nest on the train on the way home, so it was warmed up when we got home. Or, I could wake up, grab my phone and turn up the heat. 

That said, the app still needs a little bit of fine tuning. You can set up a schedule for the thermostat through the app, but it’s not the best experience. I’d like to see it work more like a calendar app, maybe. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but there’s something ever so slightly off about it. Overall, I think the app and the scheduling are gold, but they could use some refinement. 

Bottom line: I’m thrilled with the Nest and would recommend it to just about anyone. 

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The Planet’s 24 Largest Social Media Sites, And Where Their Next Wave Of Growth Will Come From

BII top global social properties

Social media transcends geography, and the sheer scale and diversity of audiences on the sites makes them tremendously important.

It’s no longer all about Facebook. Instead, users in some of the biggest countries are gravitating to regional sites. Others are heading en masse to U.S.-based networks, meaning that some of the largest social sites are global communities first and foremost.

In a new report from BI Intelligence, we compare the world’s largest social networks in two ways. First, we evaluate the biggest properties side-by-side in terms of total audience size. Then we analyze the markets where each has the most growth potential, and their demographics in terms of country-of-origin.

Here are 10 of the most surprising facts from our first annual global media census: 

Access The Full Report And All Our Social Media Data By Signing Up For A Free Trial Today>>

In full, the report:

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11 Beard Facts to Make You Proud of Your Movember Facial Hair



November is drawing to a close, which means your weeks of shaving negligence have turned your wispy mustache into a full-blown, manly beard worthy of cavemen

We’re sure you’ve grown to love your unkempt facial hair, and will miss it dearly when it’s gone. Your chin will be much colder

So before you butcher your beard, revel in these 11 “facts” from Doghouse Diaries about the power of facial hair

Until next year, men (and women) of Movember!


Comic illustration courtesy of Doghouse Diaries. Published with permission; all rights reserved. Read more…

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New Technology Helps Stores Track Your Every Move This Season

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s a big question for marketers: What kind of a buyer are you? And, as important, what are you willing to pay?

In the search for answers this shopping season, consumer behavior online and off is being tracked aggressively with help from advances in technology.

And it can happen whether buyers are on their work computers, mobile devices or just standing in the grocery aisle. The data can be connected with other personal information like income, ZIP code and when a person’s car insurance expires.

Retailers say these techniques help customize shopping experiences and can lead to good deals for shoppers. Consumer advocates say aggressive tracking and profiling also opens the door to price discrimination, with companies charging someone more online or denying them entirely based on their home price or how often they visit a site.

“You can’t have Christmas any more without big data and marketers,” said Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy. “You know that song where Santa knows when you’ve been sleeping? He knows when you’re awake? Believe me, that’s where he’s getting his information from.”

Consumer tracking has long been a part of American consumerism. Retailers push shoppers to sign up for loyalty cards, register purchased items for warranty programs and note ZIP codes to feed their mailing lists. Online stores and advertising services employ browser “cookies,” the tiny bits of software code that can track a person’s movements across the Internet, to analyze shoppers and present them with relevant pop-up ads.

More recently, marketers have developed increasingly sophisticated ways to combine offline and online data that creates detailed profiles of shoppers. They also are perfecting location-tracking technology as a means of attracting new customers and influencing shoppers as they wander through brick-and-mortar stores.

A major push encourages shoppers to agree to be tracked in exchange for a good deal. Brick-and-mortar stores used to balk at customers who used smartphones to compare prices at rival stores, but retailers like Target are now pushing their own mobile apps and offering in-store Wi-Fi. The mobile apps entice shoppers with coupon deals or ads as they move throughout a store, while in-store Wi-Fi is another way to track a consumer’s online movements.

To further lure buyers, major holiday retailers, including Macy’s, Best Buy and JCPenney, have partnered with the Shopkick mobile app. If shoppers turn on the app while in their store, they can be rewarded with discounts or song downloads for trying on clothes, scanning barcodes and making purchases.

Another app, Snapette, blends American’s addiction to social media sites with location technology. Aimed at women keen on fashion, consumers can see what accessories or shoes are creating a buzz in their particular neighborhood, while stores get a chance to entice nearby shoppers with ads or coupons.

Not all new technology tracking is voluntary. Stores have been experimenting with heat sensors and monitoring cellphone signals in their stores to see which aisles attract the most attention. One product called “Shopperception” uses the same motion-detection technology in the Xbox Kinect to track a customer’s movement, including whether they picked up a product only to return it to the shelf. In addition to analyzing customer behavior, it can trigger nearby digital signs offering coupons and steering shoppers to certain products.

The company contends that the technology is less intrusive than other tracking devices, including security cameras, because a person’s image is never stored and their movements only registered as a data point.

Marketers also are learning to overcome limitations with software cookies. One tech startup called Drawbridge claims to have found a way to link a person’s laptop and mobile device by analyzing their movements online, enabling advertisers to reach the same consumer whether they’re on their work computer or smartphone.

But how all that information is used and where it ends up is still unclear. The Federal Trade Commission, along with several lawmakers, has been investigating the “data broker” industry, companies that collect and sell information on individuals by pooling online habits with other information like court records, property taxes, even income. The congressional Government Accountability Office concluded in November that existing laws have fallen behind the pace of technological advancements in the industry, which enables companies to aggregate large amounts of data without a person’s knowledge or ability to correct errors.

“There are lots of potential uses of information that are not revealed to consumers,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America. To protect themselves, “consumers still need to do quite a bit of shopping to make sure that they get (what) meets their needs the best and is the best price.”


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Steve Jobs Initially Hated The Idea Of White Apple Products (AAPL)

iphone music headphones

In 2001, Apple started making all of its products white. 

This happened even though Steve Jobs was not a fan of the idea. 

“Initially, Jobs’s instincts were against white products,” says Leander Kahney in his new book, Jony Ive, The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products.

Jony Ive, Apple’s design leader was in favor of white products. Since his school days, he’d been building products out of white plastic. 

He started making Apple’s products white partially in reaction to the colorful phase Apple went through with the translucent plastic iMac.

Apple shocked the world, and changed everything, when it released the first iMac in Bondi Blue. It followed up with a bunch of different colored iMacs. 

Apple made the iBook in white plastic. Ive wanted to continue that with the iPod.

“Right from the very first time, we were thinking about the product, we’d see [the iPod] as stainless steel and white. It’s just so … brutally simple. It’s not a color. Supposedly neutral — but just an unmistakable, shocking neutral,” said Ive about the iPod. 

When Apple’s designers were presenting products to Jobs he reflexively disliked white initially. So, Apple’s designers tried to come up with colors that were close to white without being white to make him happy. 

The designers came up with cloud white, snow white, glacial white, and moon gray, which looked like it was white, but was really grey. Jobs liked the moon gray, and approved it for a keyboard, says Kahney. 

Moon gray also ended up being used in the cords on iPod ear phones, even though most people called the cords white.

“Moon grey and seashell gray were shades developed by us at Apple that were so close to white as to appear almost white but were in fact gray,” says Doug Satzger, who worked in the Apple design group.

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SIM-free BlackBerry Z10 now available for $199

Black Friday is now behind us, but the Cyber Monday deals are already starting to come in. BlackBerry is among the first to give you a cool smartphone promotion, letting you have its former Z10 flagship for just $199.

That’s the price for SIM-free BlackBerry Z10 with no commitment to any carrier. Shipping is also free, so the price announced is final (no taxes included, of course). To take…

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