Your Smartphone Violates Asimov’s First Law of Robotics

Asimov’s idea was that robots should be designed to never injure people
or allow them to come to harm. Nobody gave his rule any thought when designing the smartphone, which is as close as we’ll get to a robot anytime soon. And indeed, as the FSF’s Eben Moglen points out, smartphones have harmed a great many people and allowed even more to come to harm.

The point is simple. We need to root out the technology that’s intended to push power to the companies. And then we need to rewire it so it works for the user.

(I’d add: If that’s not possible, at least get rid of / disable / destroy the bits of it in our own lives. It’s not always easy or convenient, but it’s highly worthwhile. [The jury’s still out on stun guns, but Faraday cages seem to help.])

The problem is that smartphones are designed to transfer control to the carrier and to Google or Apple. Through that, they give those organizations (and the people they’re in turn beholden to) undue access to and influence over people’s lives. And that happens in ways that are bad for the world.

(It’s one thing to e.g jailbreak a phone and use it for research where the participants consent to be monitored. It’s another thing entirely for hundreds of different companies and nasty organizations to do that to a great swath of the world’s tech-savvy population without their consent. We’ve seen the consequences already.)

“Seventy years ago, Asimov created the “first law of robotics,” the idea that robots of the future would obey a rule rooted deep in their programming: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” […]

We imagined that robots would be designed so that they could never hurt a human being. These robots [smartphones] have no such commitments. These robots hurt us every day.

They work for other people. They’re designed, built and managed to provide leverage and control to people other than their owners. Unless we retrofit the first law of robotics onto them immediately, we’re cooked.

They take our money. They take our autonomy. They spy on us. And around the world, they result in our arrest, beating, torture.

There are people right now being tortured because they took an iPhone to a demonstration or used Facebook to organize something political. Or they paid too much for something because the seller knew they would. Their insurance premiums are going up because their behavior is so known. Harm is being done to them socially, economically, medically.

Once your brain is working with a robot that doesn’t work for you, you’re not free.[…]

Even jailbreaking iPhones and rooting Android devices is only a first step, he adds. “That’s like taking the cover plate off the robot,” Moglen says. “But we have to deeply infiltrate the thing, all the way from the cloud to the device, and make it work the way people need it to work, not the way the network operators want it to work.”

Moglen isn’t known for his moderate stances on digital freedom issues. He’s described Steve Jobs as a “moral monster” and called Mark Zuckerberg “ a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt” who “ has done more harm to the human race than anyone his age.””


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