It may surprise some to know, but Isaac Asimov's classic tale of science fiction, I, Robot, is about to become officially obsolete. Asimov's tales of robotics gave us what is commonly referred to as the Three Laws of Robotics, a system so basic, so universal that every robot in the Asimov universe operated according to them. But one person is noting that one particular line of Droids--indeed, all smartphones as well--doesn't seem to be living up to that maxim. The person in question, futurist / activist Eben Moglen, plans to include remarks on the topic at the upcoming HOPE--Hackers On Planet Earth--conference in New York City.
Asimov's short stories predicted that, by 2015, even older-model robots would obey the Three Laws, the first of which is "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.". Moglen, meanwhile, believes that it's time all our Droids--not to mention our iPhones and BlackBerry phones --got their exposure to the First Law of Robotics.
Moglen's remarks will take on an important theme, referring to 1960s-era science fiction that posited that we as a society would be living with robots, and on a regular basis. The prediction hasn't quite come to pass, at least not in a way that 1960s-era science fiction would have projected, but the robots are still there. However, we humans serve as their mobility platforms, getting them from place to place, while they in turn, in almost a symbiotic environment, provide us with information and entertainment on a level we'd never expected to see.
But at the same time, Moglen elaborates, these devices aren't always operating in our best interests. They provide what Moglen describes as "leverage and control to people other than their owners." Mobile devices report their locations to advertisers, or even to civil authorities. Moglen even describes events in which smartphones have led to individuals being imprisoned or tortured for using a smartphone at a demonstration or organizing political rallies using Facebook from a mobile device.
Moglen does have something of a technological solution for this; by way of the FreedomBox computer he's been developing which allows for more anonymous use of the Internet thanks to routing through the Tor anonymization network as well as encryption of e-mail. But his primary focus is one of ethics, legality and morality. Moglen once, by way of example, referred to former Apple CEO Steve Jobs as a "moral monster" and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as "a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt".
While Moglen has some clear points, it's also worth noting that not much of what Moglen rails against is actually a function of the devices working to hurt humanity, so implementation of the First Law of Robotics wouldn't exactly be much help. The smartphone does not tell anyone where the user is; programs within the smartphone written by others that interface with the GPS do that. The smartphone does not send people to jail and torture for using Facebook to organize a demonstration; governments do that. Asimov's Laws of Robotics were necessary because his robots could do what humans could. A robot could strangle or shoot or stab as readily as any human; these are things no smartphone can do.
Moglen's thoughts are in the right place, but it looks like he's simply barking up the wrong tree, so to speak; his efforts need to be focused more on people and less on devices.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman