Monday, December 03, 2007

Can Robots Be Ethical? Continued

Last week I considered the proposal of sci-fi writer Robert Sawyer, who wants to recognize robot rights and responsibilities as moral agents. He looks forward to the day when "biological and artificial beings can share this world as equals." I said that this week I would take up the distinction between good and necessary laws regulating the development of use of robots as robots, and the unnecessary and pernicious idea of treating robots as autonomous moral agents. To do that, I'd like to look at what Sawyer means by "equal."

I think the sense in which he uses that word is the same sense that is used in the Declaration of Independence, which says that "all men are created equal." That was regarded by the writers of the Declaration as a self-evident truth, that is, one so plainly true that it needed no supporting evidence. It is equally plain and obvious that "equal" does not mean "identical." Then as now, people are born with different physical and mental endowments, and so what the Founders meant by "equal" must mean something else other than "identical in every respect."

What I believe they meant is that, as human beings created by God, all people deserve to receive equal treatment in certain broad respects, such as the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is probably what Sawyer means by equal too. Although the origin and nature of robots will always be very different than those of human beings, he urges us to treat robots as equals under law.

I suspect Sawyer wants us to view this question in the light of what might seem to be its great historical parallel, that is, slavery. Under that institution, some human beings treated other human beings as though they were machines: buying and selling them and taking the fruits of their labor without just compensation. The deep wrong in all this is that slaves are human beings too, and it took hundreds of years for Western societies to accept that fact and act on it. But acting on it required a solid conviction that there was something special and distinct about human beings, something that the abolition of slavery acknowledged.

Robots are not human beings. Nothing that can ever happen will change that fact—no advances in technology, no degradation in the perception of what is human or what is machine, nothing. It is an objective fact, a self-evident truth. But just as human society took a great step forward in admitting that slaves were people and not machines, we have the freedom to take a great step backward by deluding ourselves that people are just machines. Following Sawyer's ideas would take us down that path. Why?

Already, it is a commonly understood assumption among many educated and professional classes (but rarely stated in so many words) that there is no essential difference between humans and machines. There are differences of degree—the human mind, for example, is superior to computers in some ways but inferior in other ways. But according to this view, humans are just physical systems following the laws of physics exactly like machines do, and if we could ever build a machine with the software and hardware that could simulate human life, then we would have created a human being, not just a simulation.

What Sawyer is asking us to do is to acknowledge that point of view explicitly. Just as the recognition of the humanity of slaves led to the abolition of slavery, the recognition of the machine nature of humanity will lead to the equality of robots and human beings. But look who moved this time. In the first case, we raised the slaves up to the level of fully privileged human beings. But in the second, we propose to lower mankind to the level of just another machine. There is no other alternative, because admitting machines to the rights and responsibilities of humans implicitly acknowledges that humans have no special characteristic that distinguishes them from machines.

Would you like to be treated like a machine? Even a machine with "human" rights? Of course not. Well, then, how would you like to work for a machine? Or owe money to a machine? Or be arrested, tried, and convicted by a machine? Or be ruled by a machine? If we give machines the same rights as humans, all these things not only may, but must come true. Otherwise we have not fully given robots the same rights and responsibilities as humans.

There is a reason that most science fiction dealing with robots portrays the dark side of what might happen if robots managed to escape the full control of humans (or even if they don't). All good fiction is moral, and the engine that drives robot-dominated dystopias is the horror we feel at witnessing the commission of wrongs on a massive scale. Add to that horror the irony that these stories always begin when humans try to achieve something good with robots (even if it is a selfish good), and you have the makings of great, or at least entertaining, stories. But we want them to stay that way—just stories, not reality.

Artists often serve as prophets in a culture, not in any necessarily mystical sense, but in the sense that they can imagine the future outcomes of trends that the rest of us less sensitive folk perceive only dimly, if at all. We should heed the warnings of a succession of science fiction writers from Isaac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke and onward, that there is great danger in granting too much autonomy, privileges, and yes, equality, to robots. In common with desires of all kinds, robots make good slaves but bad masters. As progress in robotic technology continues, a good body of law regulating the design and use of robots will be needed. But of supreme importance is the philosophy upon which this body of law is erected. If at the start we acknowledge that robots are in principle just advanced cybernetic control systems, essentially no different than a thermostat in your house or the cruise control on your car, then the safety and convenience of human beings will come first in this body of law, and we can employ increasingly sophisticated robots in the future without fear. But if the laws are built upon the wrong foundation—namely, a theoretical idea that robots and humans are the same kind of entity—then we can look forward to the day that some of the worst of science fiction's robotic dystopias will happen for real.

Sources: Besides last week's blog on this topic, I have written an essay ("Sociable Machines?") on the philosophical basis of the distinction between humans and machines, which I will provide upon request to my email address (available at the Texas State "people search" function on the Texas State University website

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