Friday, October 25, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Robot Morality?

Technology...what is good what is evil ? Does it help or harm ..... This is due Tuesday

Quite a few years ago there was a contest for high school students. Their assignment was to take a position and defend it on the issue of which was more dangerous, religion or science. I was already a college graduate so I couldn't participate, but I wished that the contest had taken place when I was still in high school because I much wished that I could.

The answer of course is that things are dangerous (or in the case of your debate, evil) depending on how they are used. The religious person is not in and of himself dangerous, contrary to the endless near hysterical declarations of the New Atheists. And neither is science, contrary to the declarations of some religious extremists.

Facts are simply facts. Objects are merely objects. Machines and other devices are only machines and other devices. What matters is not the thing in and of itself, but what you do with it.

The point I would have made had I been able to participate in the essay contest, is that there is no inherent danger or evil in any particular human belief whether religious or scientific. The danger or evil lies in extremism. Carry religion to an extreme and you become a fanatic, perhaps even a murderer in the name of your god. Carry science to an extreme, then you begin to see the world only as a series of experiments or data sets, losing all your sense of human balance and morality.

Let's take one example. It is easy to be frightened of the concept of cybernetic organisms. From the Arnold Schwarzenegger robot from the future here to destroy humanity, to the Borg in Star Trek, this is a long-standing human fear. Even back in the 1930s Issac Asimov wrote a science fiction series about robots in the far future and the resistance they would meet from the human population terrified by the Frankenstein complex, as he called it. This, of course, was the fear that we would create a creature or being which would then turn on us and destroy us.

In fact the very word robot comes from a Czechoslovakian short story called Rossum's Universal Robots. This translates to Rossum's Universal Workers, but since the workers were mechanical men, the term robot came to be applied to all such creations. As I'm sure you guessed, in the story the robots turned on their creators and destroyed them.

Technology has always aroused fears that it would be evil. I read in an article on the first telephones that many people were bitterly troubled by this new device. The attitude of many was why would I put this thing in my house? If I do, people can just pick up the phone and call me. They thought, if it's so important to talk to me you can get up and ride or walk across town and talk to me after you knock on my door. The idea was that the telephones would reduce human contact to a mere voice coming out of a box and this would dehumanize us all. They were right to some extent.

Today many people are disturbed by the amazing cybernetic devices which are being developed. These almost become a part of a disabled person's body and allow him more access to the world than he previously had. Today, even a synthetic skin has been developed which can transmit a sense of touch to a person's nerves. (It's purely experimental, but it is being improved.)

While we well may wonder where will it end, we can be pleased at the success of this way of making disabled individuals much freer. It makes their lives much more livable and enjoyable. Surely, we can't deny them that benefit.

So technology is neither good nor evil. There's no morality in a rock either. But if I pick that rock up and I use it to build a home or a fireplace you could argue that the rock is good. On the other hand, if I pick up the same rock and beat someone over the head with it, you could argue that the rock is bad. However, it's really clear that the rock is just an object, what's good or bad is my actions.

This is not to say that we can't design technology whose purpose can be interpreted as purely evil. Again, that's not the technology's fault. We are the designers. We are the creators. Here's an example:

A few years ago I noted an article in the LA Times which said that at nearby China Lake, the Navy was attempting to develop a system by which a computer could recognize morality and make moral decisions. This was intended so that the Navy could create a drone or robot which could choose when or when not to kill human beings on the battleground. It would decide this on its own without any direct human supervision.

I discussed this with your little sister, my prodigal daughter, because I found the idea very disturbing. She agreed and I thought that was the end of the conversation.

A few days later she told me that she had shared that information with a friend who works at China Lake. Her friend was very interested and wanted to know where I had gotten that information. However, she refused to discuss the subject any further. Obviously, she was aware of the project and obviously it was considered highly secret. How the article got into the LA Times, I'm not sure.

Now the terminator robot as conceived in that Schwarzenegger movie cannot be identified as evil in and of itself. It is only a machine doing what it was designed to do. The evil comes not from the device but from the human beings who created it. But what about what's being tried out at China lake? The attempt to put morality into a machine, to make it able to make moral judgments is a very disturbing. What if they were successful? Would the machine then be morally responsible for his own decisions? Or would it merely be a computer program seeming to make moral decisions when it's actually just playing around with numbers?

Would such a robot have consciousness? The implications are disturbing and unclear.

One more real-life example of how things including technology and scientific facts are just neutral: A physician was studying World War II era medical reports in an attempt to find a treatment for a rare condition for a dying child. He was surprised to actually find one. He was looking out of desperation and hadn't expected to actually find any useful information.

Now he knew a way to treat and save the child using a rare form of surgery. As he was preparing to perform the operation someone pointed out to him that the doctor who reported that information was a Nazi. Not just someone who joined the Nazi party because it was thing to do, but a really, truly, believing, mass murder loving Nazi.

Worse, it appeared that the knowledge of how to perform the surgery was gained through horrible Nazi medical experiments on helpless prisoners. Obviously, the knowledge was gained through despicably evil and immoral acts, among the worst human beings have ever committed.

The doctor, in a television interview, then reported that he was was no longer certain that he should use this tainted information in order to save the child's life. He said it was the worst moral dilemma of his life. In the end, he decided that the child was innocent and should be saved even at the expense of using this evilly tainted knowledge.

I have no sympathy for the doctor whatsoever. Yes, the information was gained in a horrifically evil way. But that did not make the knowledge evil. As far as I'm concerned, the doctor was taking an airy fairy prissy position sitting on a moral high horse while deciding whether or not to let an innocent child die because he, the doctor, would not stain himself with evilly acquired knowledge.

The methods used to gain knowledge were certainly evil. How could that possibly make the technology evil? Knowledge is knowledge. It is not a moral or immoral. It is simply factual.

This is true of everything we humans create or utilize. It is not evil in of itself, but it can be used for evil. Of course, it can also be used for good. That is up to us

Once again I can't help adding something that is not relevant to your needs but which interests me. When Galileo first pointed his telescope at the skies, some people were horrified. What upset them so much? They decided that what he was doing was acting like a peeping Tom. Peeping at God!

They thought that God gave us eyes that could see just so much and that's how much God wanted us to see. Using a telescope to look at the heavens was like peeking into somebody's windows. Like peeking in through God's windows.

This was reason enough for them to decide that this new technology, the telescope, was evil.

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