Will robots gradually take our place? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Will robots gradually take our place?

Periscope begins a new series of reflections on current issues of concern.

Robotic soldiers are, it seems, not too far away from becoming reality. Already the US military is using any number of robotic or semi-robotic machines that can fly themselves, or carry out bomb disposal or mine clearing activities. And it may not be long before robots are programmed to recognise friend from foe and ultimately to kill the latter.

There are advantages to using robots over humans for combat situations. The obvious one is that robots can’t feel pain and don’t need to worry about protecting themselves. A less obvious benefit is the possibility that robot soldiers might perform more ethically than real humans.

They might for instance be programmed with the rules of the Geneva Convention and, so programmed, not be influenced or prejudiced by emotions such as anger, fear, or perhaps the desire for revenge. War crimes could become a thing of the past.

That non-emotional characteristic of a robot might though be a double-edged sword. After all there may be instances during war when emotion might be a crucial component in the decision of whether to fire or not. Emotions such as pity, empathy and above all compassion.

As one commentator I heard put it (and I paraphrase), “In a war situation do we really want a glorified parking attendant fastidiously and ruthlessly implementing ‘the rules’?”

Unthinkable

In the fields of human and veterinary medicine we are already using semi-robotic equipment to perform operations and investigations that would have been unthinkable not too many years ago. At its simplest, flexible endoscopes are nothing more than this and what can now be achieved using keyhole surgery and tiny cameras and surgical instruments is nothing short of remarkable.

So far as I am aware, though, all such procedures are still ultimately controlled by a human but I wonder how long it will be before that is no longer the case. If we are soon able to program robots to autonomously kill the enemy, it must be easier still to program them to carry out relatively simple surgical procedures or medical examinations.

However, the unemotional manner in which they would undertake such a function might mean they are unable to respond to emotional signals from a human or animal patient (or the owner of an animal) that are important to achieving a diagnosis and the correct implementation and beneficial outcome of any treatment.

As an illustration, I recently attended a training course where the importance of body language as opposed to the spoken word in communicating a message was stressed. Would robots be able to pick up on the subtle facial expressions and body postures that most of us can read automatically?

These days the same criticism can be levelled to some extent at humans who are required to make a professional judgment after processing all the facts as they are presented.

It has become the norm that, in order to try to ensure that a positive and consistent outcome is arrived at, rigorous procedures for ways of working have been introduced.

Over-procedurisation

The problem with this is that the over-procedurisation of a person’s actions may eventually remove that person’s desire and ability to make a judgment when something outside the scope of “the rules” occurs.

This was illustrated by an anecdote I heard about an East German woman’s reaction shortly after the Berlin Wall had fallen. She was asked by someone from the West what she would like to do that afternoon. It was not long before she was reduced to tears, explaining that under the old regime she had never been presented with such a “blank canvas” and didn’t know how to proceed.

There is a lesson there for all of us to learn, particularly when procedures are introduced in order to try to stop mistakes from occurring. Such procedures are frequently cumbersome, laboursome, and designed to remove all professional judgment from any action proposed or taken. And because rigorously following the procedures reduces the frequency with which a person’s judgment is used, the occasions when a professional judgment is urgently and genuinely required might not easily be recognised.

Equally, since procedures cannot be laid down for every eventuality there comes a time when the need for judgment might be forced on someone not used to exercising that choice. The result may be not dissimilar to the case of the East German woman described above, an inability to choose the way forward when no clear way or guidance is being offered.

Solid guidance needed

It is, of course, important in all professions that solid professional guidance is given so that any “rogue” elements or charlatans are discouraged from dodgy or unethical practices.

But we must make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water by forcing genuine and competent people to follow a narrow pathway that prevents them or frightens them from making decisions based on their professional training and experience.

The swamping of the likes of social workers, the police, the medical profession and teachers by cumbersome and in many cases unwarranted red tape will do nothing to improve the overall outcomes for the patients or customers on the receiving end. In fact quite the reverse may be true.

As an example I heard someone, during an interview on Radio 4, describe their experience of one of the above professions as working under a “soul destroying un-creative tension”. If that genuinely is the case, then it is no wonder that so many of those aforementioned professionals are fed up and merely “ticking the boxes” when it comes to performing their respective jobs.

And whilst ticking boxes will keep a number of people very happy for a certain period of time, if that is all that is required, then un-emotional robots may eventually find themselves the cheaper and more consistent option. They will not, however, deliver the real improvements that everybody is, quite rightly, chasing and I suspect that we will all suffer as a result.

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