Thursday, March 08, 2007

I, Robot

According to this report from the BBC, the South Korean government plans to establish ethical guidelines for interactions between robots and humans. The article indicates that the guidelines will govern both how robots should behave towards us and how we should behave towards them. It speculates that the guidelines governing behavior of robots may resemble Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which is fitting enough, given that the "Robot Ethics Charter" is being drafted by a team that includes a science fiction writer. Asimov's Three Laws are:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Anybody who's seen The Matrix or Terminator movies could think these rules more than prudent. We want robots to serve us rather than enslave or eat us, and consistent with those goals, it would be a shame if robots started committing suicide en masse. The assumption that we need to program robots with something like Asimov's Three Laws suggests that, absent such inhibitions, robots would develop wills of their own (and would of course want to destroy us or at least use our bodies as an energy source). Yet if robots do have minds of their own, might there be something immoral about implanting in their robot brains imperatives that are not the product of their own mental processes? At least some robotophiles so worry.

I'm not so sure myself. For one thing, it's conceivable that a robot could have artificial intelligence without a subjective sense of self. It could be a "ghostless" machine. In that case, there would be no immorality in denying the robot the ability to act on its "will," because the robot wouldn't have a will or any sensations whatsoever. Moreover, even if the robots did have a subjective sense of self, it's not necessarily immoral to program them with certain overriding behavioral laws. Much human behavior is "hard-wired." For example, try as I might, I cannot override the signal my brain sends to my heart to pump blood throughout my body (and a damn good thing too!). Even more sophisticated and largely voluntary behaviors--like craving sweet, salty and fatty foods--are products of our evolutionary history that, in circumstances of plenty, work against our interests and even our (weak) wills. It is not at all clear that a robot hard-wired with Asimov's Three Laws suffers any greater loss of autonomy than we suffer in virtue of our genetic programming.

Finally, there is something pathetic about devoting serious thought to the moral rights of hypotethically sentient robots against being made the Foucauldian vehicles of their own oppression, when human societies afford not even minimal rights against the enslavement, torture and killing of beings we know to have a subjective sense of self and the ability to suffer, namely the other animals with which we share the planet. So, robotistas, I'll make you the following deal: I'll take seriously the possible immorality of Asimov's Three Laws when you become vegans.


egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

Related to my post about the "Quantum Self" in the Scotty thread, there are scientists (maybe pseudo-scientists, I guess) out there who think it's possible to "engineer" a conscience with robotics.

I think the idea is that by pumping enough energy into the system, a form of condensate is generated -- and then "consciousness" (a greater whole) generates out of the parts.

I'll believe that one when I see it, given that I struggle to get my car to even start on some days :)

Derek said...

I'm not sure I understand the "Quantum Self" idea but so far as I know you can't "see" consciousness, and that's really the problem.

One could have a functionally equivalent robot (indistinguishable from a human in the way it reacts to stimuli) and it is still possible (although some people deny this) for it not to be conscious in the way Prof. Dorf is talking about.

This connects up interestingly, I think, with the topic from the personal identity thread in the sense that, should such sophisticated robots come into existence, courts are going to have to decide whether or not they should have rights. And that determination is going to depend on whether or not they are conscious - a decidedly philosophical (rather than legal) question. Similarly, if we invent teleporters, courts will have to decide whether using them is suicide.

egarber said...

On the Quantum self thing, I think I read somewhere that a laser is a form of "condensate" in this way. You pump enough energy into the system, and all particles take on a "higher calling" in the form of the whole. In this example, the laser then takes on a whole (what a laser can do) that transcends the individual parts.

Another example is the way a bazillion termites suddenly "know what to do" (build a mound) when together, while individually in isolation they show no directional behavior.

Some say the brain might give rise to conscience this way -- with all the neuron cells, etc.

But I'm not a scientist, that's for sure.

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Parker said...

Asimovs laws are inadaquate in terms of moral philosophy. They appear to be pacifist. Now pacifism has exercised some of the best minds of Christendom down the generations.

What to you do if you get a group of people who are intent of World domination by force. Like Hitler, Stalin or modern Islamic extremists. They must surely be killed for the benefit of us all.

What I think AI could do. I say AI and not just robotics, is to provide some insight into moral philosophy and investigate Etherial views, that is to say views with no antecedents. Example - infidels must be killed and examine how these iseas form in the human host and how they can be eradicated.

Liberals wax hot over Bush and his war in Iraq. They never conndemn etherialism as such. It is etherialism that is wreking Iraq. The Americans have not been defeated. The Iraqis have.

Combating etherialism will require a multi pronged approach - including AI. I'm afraid though that Asimov does not help us to deal with it.

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