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They, robot

Sparks fly as Hyundai Corp. robotic arms weld panels of automobiles on the production line at the Kia Motors Slovakia plant in Zilina, Slovakia, on May 14, 2018.
Sparks fly as Hyundai Corp. robotic arms weld panels of automobiles on the production line at the Kia Motors Slovakia plant in Zilina, Slovakia, on May 14, 2018.Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

It looks like it’s too late to curb the AI arms race

In “How to keep machines in their place” (Ideas, Feb. 21), Frank Pasquale offers four new laws for robots as an update to the three laws that Isaac Asimov devised more than 75 years ago. One of these four is: “Robotic systems and AI should not intensify zero-sum arms races.” But that’s happening.

Autonomous weapons, made smarter by AI, will prove to be consequential force-multipliers. The race among the United States, China, Russia, and others to develop and deploy autonomous AI weapons makes the world’s turn to them inexorable and irreversible. The technology will disrupt warfare in all domains: on land, on water, underwater, in the air, and in space.


Autonomous AI weapons are the next step to make weapons more effective. Spotting, identifying, targeting, and destroying multiple enemy targets simultaneously, vastly faster than can humans, changes wars’ dynamics. Our forces become more lethal to intended targets, while (ethically) diminishing unintended damage.

Autonomous AI weapons also will help to stall the tendency of warfare to degrade because of chaos and unpredictability, exacerbated by the fog and friction of war. In the context of Pasquale’s third law of robotics, the objective is not to achieve a level playing field, but rather to gain a decisive advantage: to vanquish the enemy before the enemy vanquishes you.

Keith Tidman

Bethesda, Md.

Automated systems are already replacing us

Frank Pasquale’s Feb. 21 Ideas article, “How to keep machines in their place,” presents the three laws of robotics that Isaac Asimov proposed, and then offers four updated laws because Asimov’s laws are too ambiguous.

It is interesting that the first of the proposed new laws, that robotic systems and AI should complement professionals, not replace them,” has already been usurped. Go into a Walmart or other grocery store and you’ll find a cornucopia of self-checkout stations and a dearth of cashiers operating traditional checkout aisles. Go into a McDonald’s, and there are idle self-help ordering stations. Go into a bank, and there are ATMs and fewer live tellers. Automated car wash systems run without a human on the premises. Even worse, try to talk to a human when seeking support from a telecom provider. These latter systems are programmed to discourage any attempt to get help from a human, even if the automated system cannot resolve the problem.


And this is at the consumer level. Companies such as Kiva Systems (renamed Amazon Robotics) manufacture automated order fulfillment machines. Manufacturing plants are run with few humans attending.

All of this is replacing humans without any consideration of what will happen to them. Perhaps the economic collapse caused by the pandemic may be an indication of what’s to come.

I’m not proposing we become Luddites. I’m suggesting that the cat is already out of the bag, and more effort needs to put into taming that cat.

Marcel Kates