It’s the dark, wee morning hours of July 8, 2016 and Micah Xavier Johnson is holed up on the second floor of El Centro College with a rifle, singing. Eleven people are injured, five police officers are dead. After two hours, the Dallas Police Department has given up on negotiations. A Special Weapons and Tactics team is positioned down the hallway from Johnson, working a pound of C-4 plastic explosive into the arm of the department’s Remotec Andros Mark 5A-1. It’s the C-3PO of police robots. It has video cameras and an arm, but aside from being able to blind someone with a flash or dole out a nasty pinch, it is not a fighter. It was made for bomb disposal, not delivery. This morning, for the first time in police-robot history, it will be used to take a human life.
Afterward, news headlines screamed KILLER ROBOTS HAVE ARRIVED. But those headlines miss the point. The robot wasn’t sentient. It didn’t kill somebody; somebody used it to kill somebody else. Much of the debate focused on the robot and others like it: how heavy they are, how fast they are, how their tiny electrical muscles work. These details are superficial, but our collective nervousness that someday robots would call the shots ran deep. Artificial intelligence can be as much a threat as a benediction—but what happened in Dallas had nothing to do with AI.
Under its most orthodox definition, AI is the replication of a biological mind. Philosophers and software