Theorising mobile robots: Companion species with life on their own?

Autonomous mobile robots are an example of distancing technologies. Driverless cars and UAVs are inventions that, at the core, embed a growing absence of humans in their operational activities, as well as the depletion of the human-thing alliance. Robots are increasingly independent of their human counterparts and rely on machine learning and information via the loT/AI-powered networks to achieve set or generate new goals. Human and non-human actors in these networks are becoming dissociated from one another, while the links between non-humans continue to grow. Understanding this process is essential for our comprehension and engagement with future crimes linked to mobile robots, given their potential to almost instantly endanger and harm many people.

The absence of a human body in, or human engagement with mobile robots translates into a moral dilemma that is intrinsically linked to the human body. We want to make sure that when it comes to decision making, as we get removed from the decision process, some safeguards are put in place. We also want to make sure that technology' will continue to obey Asimov’s Laws—or whatever ‘update’ experts and the scientific community agree upon. Reducing mobile robots to inferior species, however, is not the trajectory I would advocate for, particularly given some worrying trends in the ethics in robotics identified above. While I am not engaging in a debate around ‘robot abuse’,4 this is an important question to ponder. Currently, mobile robots are defined by a critical juxtaposition: they eliminate and bypass distance, yet they create more distance between humans and technology. Driverless cars and drones enable connection and mobility, yet they increasingly limit it. They were supposed to reduce violence and harm, yet they produce it. In the critical literature on the use of drones in military and non-military contexts authors such as Neocleous, Singh, Kelly and Prasad suggest that aerial violence legitimised in the military context easily transfers to the local, aiding the fight against the poor, marginalised and socially excluded (Wall, 2016). The use of mobile robots, as demonstrated in this chapter, can result in practices that enhance social exclusion, if not physical elimination of a range of target groups, such as illegalised border crosses and terror suspects. Progress in mobile robotics is likely to further these conundrums, particularly given smart machines’ increased autonomy.

A question that needs answering is whether the development of autonomous mobile robots such as AVs and UAVs should prompt a rethinking of crime control. As it was debated in the context of self-driving cars, the development of smart machines could potentially reduce discretionary and discriminatory practices that disproportionately target racial and ethnic minorities. This outcome might eventuate not because technology is colour-blind; it is because the development of mobile robots is likely to decrease the need for such interventions. The use of drones in policing, while clearly the extension of the militarisation of police practices, can also lead to the reduction of discriminatory policing practices as surveillance from above will target everyone. Yet, while the development of mobile robots might result in lessening instances of discrimination when it comes to enforcing law and order, we cannot know on which side the coin will fall, and whether the expansion of autonomous smart machines will, in fact, result in further violations of human rights and civil liberties of risky and marginalised populations.

While in this chapter I intentionally did not focus on the capacity of autonomous mobile robots to gather, collect, transmit, and exchange data about us, our daily habits, and movements, this is a concern. Whether on the road, in our houses, workplaces, or public spaces, information about us will be stored, exchanged, and analysed. A belief that technology is ultimately a driver for good underpins the development of autonomous vehicles and drones. Technology, thus, can save lives (even in the context of military ‘killer drones’ as targeted killings supposedly reduce the number of collateral casualties), assist in arresting offenders, prevent unauthorised entry to the territory of nation-states, and even pre-empt crimes. This narrative builds on the notion that security technologies could protect borders and the nation, and regain control over mobility mostly in countries of origin and transit (Jumbert, 2016; Milivojevic, 2019), but also in countries of destination. The idea of technology as a helper in restoring the order at the border and beyond is likely to gain more traction in the coining years.

Contrary to the development of the loT, mobile robots’ advancements will not result in the technological unconscious. The notion that technology will lead to a better quality of life and improved regulatory mechanisms that will aid the state in upholding public order, regulating mobility', and preventing or disrupting criminal activity underpins the industry. Questioning it will be labelled as disruptive: how can anyone be against technology' that can save migrants drowning at sea, or reduce the number of traffic accidents? Drones and AVs are perhaps the best examples of techno-utopia where even when we know that machines have been creating, and will continue to create harm, we choose to believe in their benevolence. We believe that ultimately, smart machines will have an ethical code and when left to make their own decisions will make the right ones. But will they?

 
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