The Weird Thing Putin Just Said About Robots: They Might Eat Us

Getty Images / Sean Gallup

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the head of a country and a culture whose strategy of wielding cyber-intelligence to sway public opinion, menacingly known as “active measures,” inspires fear around the world. But for all its digital prowess, the Russian government and its people won’t be able to keep artificial intelligence at bay forever, says the 64-year-old autocrat. This week, Putin warned, robots might eventually eat people.

In front of reporters, Putin was talking at Russia’s largest technology firm, Yandex (think Google for Russia). He looked to Arkady Volozh, the company’s chief, who was discussing AI, when Putin asked him, when “AI will eat us.”

“I hope never,” Volozh replied after a pregnant pause, reported Russian news outlet RT. “It’s not the first machine to be better than humans at something. An excavator digs better than we do with a shovel. But we don’t get eaten by excavators. A car moves faster than we do…”

“They don’t think,” Putin replied, before allowing Yandex to get back to his prepared remarks about the potential of AI.

It’s the sort of bizarre prediction, seemingly out of left field, that makes one wonder whether Russia actually is developing people-eating robots. Maybe it was the blood baths, but Putin’s violent question is no doubt unsettling.

There’s historical precedent for this weird idea, though. In 2009, Cyclone Power Technologies teamed up with DARPA and Robotic Technology, Inc. to make a military robot — named EATR — that could feed on biomass, like dead trees. “Did I mention it had a chainsaw?” wondered Gizmodo’s Matt Novak in an entertaining retrospective on the robot.

The EATR robot -- as seen in this 2009 diagram -- wasn't here to eat people, folks. It's vegetarian!

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,” Cyclone’s CEO Harry Schoell said in a press release back then, after media attention on the robot came to a boil.

“This robot is strictly vegetarian,” Schoell said, convincing absolutely no one.

Putin’s been on a roll when it comes to AI lately. Earlier this month he said this:

Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.

During that speech, given to students, he forecasted how Russia could lead the world.

“If we become leaders in this area, we will share this know-how with entire world, the same way we share our nuclear technologies today,” Putin said.

Meanwhile, Russia is building an AI-powered missile that can think for itself. Seems like man-eating robots could be the least of anybody’s worries.

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