Russia Has a New Gun-Firing Robot, But It's Not a Terminator

April 18th 2017

Video of a humanoid-looking robot shooting a pair of pistols made the rounds on social media Tuesday morning, forcing people to once again question if technology has gone too far. 

Meet FEDOR. 

Short for "Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research," the artificially intelligent robot was developed by Russians scientists as part of the country's drive to expand its space program.

It's already been trained to perform simple tasks and work in harsh environments. However, it's the new skills that FEDOR demonstrates in a video shared Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that made people nervous. 

In subsequent tweets, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin explained that the gun-firing exercise was a demonstration of FEDOR's ability to execute complex motor tasks not innocent human beings. “We are not creating a Terminator," Rogozin tweeted, "but artificial intelligence that will be of great practical significance in various fields."

Russian state media network RT explains that FEDOR was designed to carry out resupply and repair missions at the International Space Station, and eventually to be the lone occupant on long-term space missions, including Russia's planned moon landings. 

British tabloid The Sun more simply describes FEDOR as a "cyber cosmonaut." 

But the robot's new ability to fire guns, combined with its existing decision-making algorithms, bring up nightmarish visions of humanity overtaken and enslaved by its own creations.

Unsurprisingly, Twitter responded with a combination of dread and dark humor. 

Concerns about artificial intelligence are legitimate and longstanding. 

Unmanned drones already provide much of the firepower in the United States' current military entanglements, according to the New Yorker, and the U.S. is developing a host of other AI military applications, from un-manned tanks and robo-police to a robot that can go on unlimited deployments by subsisting on biological material.

While people-eating robots and Russian space Terminators might seem like unchecked AI paranoia, the risks of artificial intelligence are real, and have worried leaders in the field for many years.

This is why luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and a host of prominent AI experts and tech researchers signed an open letter in 2015, urging responsible development of the technology.

Published by the Future of Life Institute, the letter advocated for research devoted to "maximizing the societal benefit of AI" and avoiding "potential pitfalls" that come with autonomous machines. 

"The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide," the letter states.

Professor Hawking has been particularly concerned about the possibility of AI run amok, telling the BBC in 2014 that "the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

Hawking also wrote an op-ed in the Independent, warning of militaries deploying "autonomous-weapon systems that can choose and eliminate targets", AI gaming financial markets, inventing new and more efficient forms of itself, and "developing weapons we cannot even understand."

And robots don't need weapons to threaten humanity. 

Even if gun-toting robots like FEDOR don't eventually destroy their creators, they could have a substantial effect on employment. The further use of robots to perform tasks that used to be done by humans threatens as many as 40 percent of all jobs in the United States, as CNN writes. Another report, from employment think tank McKinsey, warns that with currently available technology, "about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated."

And while FEDOR can drive a car and manipulate simple tools, robots are coming that could eventually take over the financial services industry, law, farming, hospitality, medicine, and complex construction, Marketwatch cautions.

So in the end, it might not be an armed robot taking your life, but a skilled one taking your job. 

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