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When robots roam the earth

Sometime this century, artificial intelligence may become its own species. Society will need new rules to cope.

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What will be the first alien intelligence with which humans come into contact? Surprisingly, it won't come from another planet. Instead, these entities will be the work of humans – robots with an artificial intelligence that will demand new rules about their roles in society.

That's the conclusion of the European Robotics Research Network, which issued a "Roboethics Roadmap" last spring. Sometime in this century, the group figures, robots will be considered intelligent enough – even self-aware, in some sense – to be considered a species all their own. "It will be an event rich in ethical, social, and economic problems," the group concludes.

For some, the topic may not be worth much more than an amused grin or likened to yet another science fiction book about human-robot interaction. But in robot-happy Japan and South Korea (which wants a robot in every home by 2013), researchers are already studying the potential impact of robots on their societies.

In the United States, Reps. Mike Doyle (D) of Pennsylvania and Zack Wamp (R) of Tennessee have formed a Congressional Caucus on Robotics to look at "this first great technology of the 21st century." Bill Gates says robotics today remind him of the computer industry 30 years ago, when he helped launched Microsoft, with the same promise of altering everyday life.

NASA's planet-probing robots, such as the Mars rovers, are becoming more sophisticated, while the Pentagon would like robotic armed vehicles and other robot weapons to make up one-third of its total deployment by 2015. Earlier this year the US military shipped the first machine-gun-toting robots to Iraq, adapted from bomb-disposal units.


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