A small group of protesters held signs and handed out t-shirts to protest robots today at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
What did they have against robots you might ask? Well, they are (apparently, seriously) concerned that robots could one day surpass human intelligence and they were genuinely anxious about this.
A spokesperson for the group told TechCrunch they hoped to raise awareness about the possible dangers of uncontrolled growth and development around artificial intelligence and robotics.
He stressed, however the group wasn’t against technology per se or even robots and AI, but they wanted to make sure that these technologies were developed in a controlled way.
The protest spokesperson cited Elon Musk as a prominent person who has expressed concern about robots and the development of artificial intelligence, and in fact TechCrunch reported in January about a $10M donation by Musk to the Future of Life Institute to “keep AI beneficial to humanity.”
As the article stated:
“Here are all these leading AI researchers saying that AI safety is important”, said Elon Musk in the statement, referring to this letter originally put forward by FLI founder and MIT professor Max Tegmark. “I agree with them, so I’m today committing $10M to support research aimed at keeping AI beneficial for humanity.”
FLI wrote in the blog post:
“There is now a broad consensus that AI research is progressing steadily, and that its impact on society is likely to increase. A long list of leading AI-researchers have signed an open letter calling for research aimed at ensuring that AI systems are robust and beneficial, doing what we want them to do.”
The group is simply organizing around the concerns expressed in this letter by some prominent members of the scientific community including physicist Stephen Hawking.
That said, the protest spokesperson insisted they didn’t intend to stop the progress of technology, but they hoped to encourage government oversight and even a worldwide organization to make sure that these technologies are developed safely and under controlled growth.
Ramses Alcaide, an electrical engineer and neuroscientist and CEO of Neurable, a startup that is developing brain-computer interfaces for people with disabilities, told TechCrunch he spoke to the group to the get their perspective.
“They see the big picture, but they don’t know where we are technologically. We could be a thousand years from what they are worrying about. There are so many things we don’t understand.”
He added, “I think slowing it down would be a disservice to humanity. I’m glad there are people who think that way. Let’s think about this scientifically, but let’s not stop research. I think if you were to ask Elon Musk if we should stifle progress, I don’t think he would want to do that,” Alcaide said.
The protest group has a Twitter account and a website, which lists the organization’s mission statement: “Stop the Robots is dedicated to using technology for good and understanding the true risks that artificial intelligence poses to humanity.”
They also list several articles with titles like: Why You Should Fear Machine Intelligence and The Need For Regulation. The website home page features the SXSW protest prominently, although the pictures make it look a lot bigger than what I observed when I came upon it this afternoon.
My first instinct when I saw this protest that it was a publicity stunt, but the people who were there seemed to have genuine concerns, and they took them to a street corner in Austin today to express them.
Update 3/17/2015: In a statement published on the Stop The Robots website last night, the founders admitted the protest was indeed a convoluted publicity stunt. They still insist they believe in the sentiment of the rally — controlled growth of artificial intelligence. Ultimately though this was about generating publicity for a dating app. Feel free to roll your eyes.