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Are robots persons, too, now?

Ethicists debate who is responsible when technology goes awry

The 2017 World Robot Conference in Beijing Associated Press/Photo by Andy Wong

Are robots persons, too, now?

In the recent past, governments have granted personhood to rivers and other natural resources. Now, the legislative body of the European Union proposes granting personhood status to so-called smart robots that have the capacity to learn through experience, act autonomously through sensors, and adapt their behavior and actions to the environment. More than 150 experts in artificial intelligence, robotics, commerce, law, and ethics from 14 countries signed an open letter opposing such legislation.

The purpose of the proposal, Gizmodo reported, pertains to liability issues. As robots with artificial intelligence become more common, it remains unclear who should assume legal responsibility when a self-learning machine makes a mistake and causes damage to property or harm to a human. Is the robot’s manufacturer, its owner, or the robot itself to blame?

Under the EU proposal the robot alone would bear legal responsibility. Of course, no one thinks the courts should send a robot to jail, but they could require robots to carry liability insurance. Proponents of such a scheme note that robots whose work brings in money could pay for the insurance out of their earnings.

But some critics say such legislation would serve only to protect manufacturers from liability. Others fear it represents the first step on a slippery slope that could end with giving robots equal rights with humans.

“A legal status for a robot can’t derive from the Natural Person model, since the robot would then hold human rights such as the right to dignity, the right to its integrity, the right to remuneration, or the right to citizenship,” the authors of the letter wrote.

Michael LaBossiere, a professor at Florida A&M University, told Gizmodo that robots currently are too simplistic to warrant personhood, but he favors laying the legal groundwork for the future of “artificial persons.”

Professor Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist who died a little over a month ago, feared more than the potential personhood of artificial intelligence. In December 2014 he warned that thinking machines posed a threat to our very existence. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he told the BBC.

A GuardTop employee demonstrates CoolSeal for engineers at the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services.

A GuardTop employee demonstrates CoolSeal for engineers at the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services. GuardTop

Painting the town to fight global warming

In an unusual attempt to fight global warming, Los Angeles is painting its streets light gray with a reflective pavement sealer made by GuardTop called CoolSeal.

Councilman Bob Blumenfield told the Los Angeles Daily News that the city wants to control the urban “heat island effect,” the tendency for cities to become hotter than the surrounding countryside. Buildings, roads, and other infrastructure make land in large cities dry and impermeable, causing the region to hold heat. On a hot summer day, roofs and pavement in urban areas can become 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the air, but in rural settings they remain close to air temperature, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

After street crews applied CoolSeal to an asphalt parking lot at a Los Angeles sports complex two years ago, the average surface temperature dropped from 160 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to between 135 and 140 degrees.

City administrators plan to continue the experiment in 14 other districts before the end of June. CoolSeal coating applications could cost an estimated $40,000 per mile and last for seven years, officials said.

E. Calvin Beisner, founder of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, said the costly scheme might just work. He argues that a significant portion of the apparent increase in global average temperature is not due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, as global warming alarmists warn, but rather from the urban heat island effect, he wrote on his organization’s blog. Heat island effect contaminates true temperature data, making the rise in global temperature appear higher than it truly is, he said. —J.B.

A GuardTop employee demonstrates CoolSeal for engineers at the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services.

A GuardTop employee demonstrates CoolSeal for engineers at the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services. GuardTop

New hope for food allergy sufferers

A vaccine in development could retrain the immune system to tolerate dangerous food allergens such as peanuts.

In a study reported in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, scientists delivered an ultrafine immunotherapy nasal spray monthly for three months to mice modified to have a peanut allergy. When they exposed the mice to peanuts, the mice did not show any localized reactions such as itchiness and puffy eyes or more severe symptoms like wheezing or shock. Researchers will conduct additional animal studies to determine how long the vaccine offers protection.

Between 1997 and 2008, the prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergy in children tripled, according to a different study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Food allergies have increased in prevalence even more since then, but not at such staggering rates. One hypothesis for the reason behind the increase links greater affluence with peanut allergies, because children are exposed to fewer immune-strengthening germs in early life than they used to be, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

“This serious and potentially life-threatening disease affects 15 million Americans and is becoming increasingly prevalent. Emergency care for severe allergic reactions has increased almost 400 percent during the past decade,” lead author Jessica O’Konek, said in a statement. —J.B.

Bees on Mars

One day, tiny robotic bees might buzz around on Mars. Scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are developing swarms of flying robots about the size of bumblebees with cicada-sized flapping wings that they plan to send to the red planet.

Scientists will integrate the little airborne bots, or Marsbees, with sensors and wireless communication devices, enabling them to collect samples and data from the Martian environment. A Mars rover will serve as a mobile base and act as a recharging station and main communication center.

Most airborne devices on Earth use rotating blades, but in the weaker gravity and thinner atmosphere of Mars flapping wings will allow the Marsbees to work more efficiently and use less power. Their small size will make them easy to test in a variety of sites and will also make transport to the planet easier.

The Marsbees are in the early stages of development. Alabama researchers will develop numerical models, and a Japanese team will design and test the prototype. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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