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Welcome to the Future: Three Rules for Artificially Intelligent Underwater Robots.

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Underwater robotics has come a long way since I started working on it in the early ‘noughts. From the massive industrial beasts of the old guard to the small, sleak, eminently hackable sprite of the Connected Exploration movement to this new crop of fully autonomous, decision-making and directive setting AI-powered drones of the last few years, everything keeps getting smaller, cheaper, and more capable. It’s a great decade to be exploring the deep.

Last month, we deployed our first swarm of artificially intelligent deep diving robots designed to patrol the abyssal plane, identify regions of unique biodiversity, and recommend critical ecosystems for international protection in advance of biomining operations. What’s unique about this project is that we’ve assigned all decision-making authority directly to the swarm. They get to decide where in the world they go and how and when they sample. This came after years of debate and negotiation with stakeholders from science, conservation, and industry, and has been accepted through international agreement as the most unbiased and equitable solution to the challenge of getting groups with vastly different goals to agree upon dividing up the deep.

After all, the software is all open source, free for anyone to examine and critique.

Deploying this little armada of big thinkers reminded me of an old science fiction story I wrote back when I was making terrible SciFi and decent science. The actual story is lost to history (remember Ello? No one remembers Ello. Sadly, that’s where I put a bunch of my unpublished stories), but the general gist was that it was a riff on Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics that spoke to robot users’ responsibility to their equipment. It also included a parody of Pascal’s Wager, in which the protagonist reasons that, whether or not infinitely intelligent AI ever emerges, on the off-chance that it does, we’re all better off being on record as being kind to our robots, just in case.

So what were the three laws for robot users?

A robot user must not exceed a robot’s operational parameters in such a way as to allow harm to come to the robot, nor, through inaction allow a robot to suffer damage that it is incapable of avoiding. 

Seems simple. Don’t make robots do things they weren’t built to do, especially if that order will damage or destroy it.

A robot user must not give orders that force a robot to violate its operational parameters, nor prevent it from fulfilling its designed purpose.

Great. Robots have jobs to do, and we should let them do it.

A robot’s existential needs are fulfilled when it acts in accordance with its designed purpose, thus a robot user should allow that robot access to knowledge of its intended purpose.

Well, this one is a little out there. I never said I was any good at writing science fiction. I think I called this the existential law of robotics.

So clearly there’s a reason I write science and not science fiction. But the underlying point is that, with any sufficiently intelligent system, we have a responsibility towards caring for it. The bot swarm has a job to do, and they are set, irreversibly upon that task. They are doing their job, and though it is dangerous, it is the job they were built for. They know and understand their objectives and are empowered to make decisions based on those objectives, without human input.

I know I say this every couple of months at this point, but welcome to the future.


On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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