Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sloppy Metaphysics

Far from being extracts from the extreme end of science fiction, the idea that we may one day give sentient machines the kind of rights traditionally reserved for humans is raised in a British government-commissioned report which claims to be an extensive look into the future.

Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.

“If we make conscious robots they would want to have rights and they probably should,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Centre of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Sure, but so what? We're not 50 years away from conscious robots. We might be 50 years away from robots that seem to all outward appearances to be conscious, but that's not the same thing.

It's not even that consciousness couldn't be artificially created. If, for instance, consciousness is just an emergent property of brains set up and functioning like our own, then there's no reason, in principle, that we couldn't replicate the necessary conditions to give rise to consciousness artificially. That's not the way robots or artificial intelligence work, though. And why should they? It seems pointlessly complicated to try to create a robot that functions mechanically the way we do, since all we're really after in a robot is the functionality of responding in the desired way to stimuli we provide.

In fact, the prospect of artificially inducing consciousness seems like an awfully good incentive not to take the consciousness-inducing strategy with a robot, since then you get into precisely those sorts of thorny ethical issues.


Rebecca C. Brown said...

"I can't let you do that, Dave." See, that kind of shit will never happen if we heed Paul's wisdom.

Insisting that a machine can only react in "human" ways if it bears "human" consciousness is an example of the homo sapiens-centric thinking that plagues even legitimate science. It's like when astronomers insist that a planet must have water and an atmosphere in order to foster life. It's geocentrism all over again.

Also, on the topic of giving sentient robots rights ... I think we already have a few billion sentient creatures with consciousness, and they're even made out of the same stuff as humans! They're called farm animals. The only right a cow has is to be stunned before he's killed, and the violation of that protection is routine and almost universally ignored, at least in the US. Non-mammal livestock don't even have the basic right to a stunning before they're killed.

Robot rights my ass. Next thing you'll tell me that inanimate corporations have constitutional rights as they're afforded to individual citizens! Oh, wait.

Paul said...

Astronomers almost always mean, and often say, "life as we know it". And for good pragmatic reasons: it's hard to know how to keep a lookout for life that isn't like anything we're familiar with here.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

It's kind of scary to think that there are lifeforms on earth now that would be more or less at home in places like Mars or Neptune. Of course, those lifeforms aren't terribly interesting unless you're a biologist.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Unless you're a biologist ... or from the future!