The Fight for Human Rights.

Over the centuries there has been a struggle for basic human rights for everyone, now enshrined in the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are recognised by all except the most extreme Libertarians and criminals. More recent and still very much under debate is the fight for animal rights, which follows the discovery that even quite simple lifeforms can feel pain and many higher animals can have recognisable emotions. Much more problematical, and with discussion only just beginning, is the question of whether machines can ever have feelings and hence whether their rights should be protected.

AIs (Artificial Intelligences) that learn are commonplace; it is no longer true to say that computers can only do what humans have programmed into them. These AIs outperform humans in many ways that would have been thought impossible not so very long ago. There is talk of computers more powerful than human brains, uploading the complete contents of a human brain into a computer, head transplants and interfacing a human to a computer using thought alone. The distinction between human and machine through measuring intelligence is already becoming difficult to determine and we have to look at much more sophisticated tests than the basic Turing Test if we want to accurately distinguish between them. John Searle with his Chinese Room Experiment and in other writings has firmly made the case that computers can never be conscious, they can only simulate consciousness; others such as Daniel Dennett disagree. All accept that, at the present time, we do not understand what consciousness is, although the physical human brain itself is beginning to give up its secrets. It is difficult to accept that computers, whose power and abilities are increasing exponentially, and which already learn from and react with their environment in ways that are impossible to completely determine, can never exhibit an attribute which we do not understand. It seems that in the not too distant future we will interact with machines which exhibit all the characteristics of being conscious but whose actual conscious nature we cannot determine.

There is an additional dilemma. We can already use stem cells to repair or replace damaged brain cells; it is not too great a leap to growing something that is physically like a complete brain. Many like Ray Kurzweil see a future where humans and machines grow together. Not only will artificial organs and limbs be used to repair, replace and improve the current delicate biological ones but implants connecting directly into the brain place the entire internet and vast amounts of processing power directly as part of our mind. It is not completely beyond our imagination to envisage a human, most of whose biological parts have been replaced by machinery and virtually the only remaining tissue is a brain which is only a part of the “mind” of the being. What would be the difference between that and a machine, constructed with part of its brain composed of human-like brain cells that were grown in a factory? Should we regard the one as fully human with all the rights that that entails and the other a mere machine with no rights which can be shut down on a whim?

It may seem that it is very early in the development of AI to be thinking in these terms, but the exponential nature of technological development means that the time will be upon us well before many of us realise it. We are already deploying robots in situations which would be too dangerous for humans or, in the case of space exploration for example, where there is no hope of return, because they are expendable. We are imagining, even looking forward to, the use of robots as soldiers, domestic servants and as sex toys; all the time doing everything we can to make them autonomous which means that they will be able to make their own decisions and perform their function without direct human control. In this respect these robots are being treated in very much the same way as slaves in the past (and indeed still in the present as well.) It took many centuries and many lives in the struggle to recognise that all humans had some basic rights that should be upheld by law; it is better to recognise and deal with the potential problems now rather than face similar problems again.

There are many who fear the rise of machine intelligence seeing it as the beginning of the end for the human race which will gradually become superfluous. This raises the important question as to whether it might be best to try and put a stop to it now, to outlaw all research into machine intelligence and consciousness so as to cement forever the supremacy of the living human mind. This in itself raises many ethical and practical problems. If we as the human race have the potential to create a new sentient species, should we not do so; is deliberately failing to do it a form of specicide. Surely if the result of creating a new species turns out to be that it becomes dominant and we decline and disappear, then should we not accept that this is as it should be, that it would only happen if they were better suited to living in and understanding the universe than we are. It is, of course, highly unlikely that a race as expansionary and warlike as the human race would meekly accept such an end, so a struggle for supremacy would be very likely unless we take the path of harmonious living together and gradual merging of human and machine. This still would involve many problems with a race so large and diverse as the human race. Universal acceptance of the best course to follow for the race as a whole is not something that has ever been achieved so far.

In practice any attempt to ban research into advanced machine intelligence is certain to fail. The genie is quite definitely out of the bottle already. AI is so useful and cost effective in so many different circumstances that the basic laws of supply and demand on which our capitalist system is based would mitigate against any attempt to restrict its development. Implementation of any such laws would also be virtually impossible since it would have to be complete and universal. Again, previous attempts to ban or restrict technologies, such as research into human embryos and cloning, have been mainly unsuccessful, although there is certainly an advantage in expressing the opposition of the majority to such research even if it continues underground. In the same way, if we accept the possibility that AIs may be given or develop consciousness then we should be beginning to formulate a regulatory regime such that the first artificial minds that are deemed to be conscious will have been decently treated.

Yet another problem now arises if we do accept the possibility of conscious machines. Given that, initially at least, they will have been constructed by humans, and their education will be provided by humans, will they have an understanding of ethics and if so will their concept remain the same as ours as they develop separately. Given that debates on ethics and morality have been going on since the beginning of human existence, with Socrates still considered as a major source for modern thought, it is perhaps unlikely that our own understanding of ethics is sufficient for it to be agreed and codified for incorporation in a machine. It might be best for the AIs, and perhaps also for us, if they be left to develop their own theories of how societies should be organised and how sentient beings should behave towards each other, a practical experiment for John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance. This would be an act of faith that such a society would develop ethically and include humans as equals.

Let us return to the situation as it is now when we consider whether machines, computers, robots or AIs can ever be considered as intelligent, conscious, sentient beings and therefore should enjoy those same rights that we currently give, or should give, to humans. We are considering entities whose capacities are, in general, below ours, but increasing exponentially with no foreseeable limit. The qualities that we are considering have been much debated but are still poorly understood; we do not understand what they are nor how they arose. We may not even be able to tell whether the machines actually have developed those qualities or whether they are just simulating them; does this make a difference? If we concede the possibility that machines might become conscious, or just that for our own sakes we should consider them as such even if it might technically be a simulation, then there are some deep philosophical, sociological and political questions that must be urgently considered. These range from deepening and extending our own concepts of ethics so that they are transferable to machines to allowing them space to develop their own systems, which hopefully will merge with our own. It would be a pity if our worst fears were realised and the first conscious intellects of a new species were inimical to humanity because their forebears had been treated as mere machines.

The View from Behind the Veil (part 1)

I bid welcome to all you disembodied spirits that have been selected to take part in this inaugural meeting of the Veil of Ignorance Committee on Justice and Fairness. As you are aware we have all been made aware that the lifting of the veil for many of us is imminent and therefore we must determine the nature of the world into which we are soon to be precipitated. In preparation for this event we have all been assigned an identifier, so that we can be distinguished, I note that the first two characters for each of us are unique within this committee so I would first propose that we use these for simplicity. I am MZ4A6U65TG and I will be referred to as MZ. Has anyone any objections?

(passed nem. con.)

Can I please ask all of you to identify yourselves and give a brief statement of your initial thoughts on the matter before us. I will start with you Comrade and pass round the table to the left. I will give my own thoughts at the end.

JR: First I must confess that I have some responsibility for this “Veil of Ignorance”. We had all assumed that we existed happily here in a State of Nature, from which we all at some point would be taken to fulfil what many had called our “purpose in life.” After talking to others such as JL, TH and JJ, I determined that there was a definite barrier in place to prevent us from knowing anything about the other side, and that there must therefore be a reason for its existence. I reasoned that there must be facets of the universe that awaits us which cause inequality and unfairness among the inhabitants. Insofar as we will have an influence on the nature of the world when we reach it, this would be seriously affected by any foreknowledge of the status we would have. The veil prevents this, so that our reasoning about the world can take place in a spirit of justice and fairness for all, and that the world we form should provide such justice and fairness to all as a right. When we pass through the veil we will then all have an Initial Position from which we can reason and develop.

IK: I too have talked to JL, TH and JJ. I find myself agreeing with a lot that JR has said. I do however think that it is important to be more specific about how individuals take decisions and plan actions that will affect not only themselves but others as well. I think that everyone must act as though their decisions were to become a universal law. If people would be badly affected then it is clear that the original decision was not just or fair. I also worry that side-effects of actions may be ignored and only the original purpose judged. I think that all consequences of actions should be considered ends on an equal standing with the intended one. I am having some difficulty finding the correct way of formulating this principle. Others seem to find it difficult to understand.

JB: I feel that the concepts of justice and fairness are poorly defined and difficult to measure. I think that the only thing about which we can be sure and that we can measure is our personal happiness. As individuals those actions and activities that make us happy we can view as just and fair; those that do the converse as unjust and unfair. When we consider larger groups of people then we can simply add up the additional happiness or unhappiness that we estimate would be the result of an action. The more general happiness that results from an action, then the more just and fair that action must be considered. I understand that there may be some difficult cases to consider, but these are exceptional and should not deflect us from our simple basic principle.


AR: I cannot accept all this woolly argument about equality, and making fairness a right. Individuals have a right, and indeed should have a fundamental urge, to do everything they can to better themselves. Of course they may have to rely on others for assistance, but that can be provided an a basis of fair exchange, given that the others will themselves be on the same path. Those that lose out in any race must just accept their fate. Those who win may be magnanimous and provide aid for the ultimate losers but under their own terms. When people organise it must be to encourage and provide support for individual enterprise, not to hold back the strong so as to artificially boost the weak. Justice and fairness will be as defined by the winners!

AH: I agree almost totally with AR! There must be defining characteristics for the type of person who should succeed, and those without those characteristics should be weeded out and given an inferior position. There must be masters and slaves. To the masters go the riches of the world and the responsibility of running it. To the slaves there will be the realisation that although they cannot ever be one of the masters, they can find fulfilment by serving the masters and helping them in every way they can.

CD: I have been considering the physical nature of the beings that we are to become. If beings are not to stagnate and die out, then there must be continual development and change. Any being whether fully sentient or not must adapt to the environment in which it finds itself so as to make best use of what it can find. Have energy to carry out activities and to reproduce so that succeeding generations can, over the course of time, change and become better. I believe that when we pass through the veil we will become such physical beings and that it will be our task to grow, develop, learn and change so that we can produce a new generation so that others of us may pass through and have available the knowledge gained by those who have gone before. We must not be overly concerned with ourselves and those around us, but we must take a wider and longer view of the development of the entire race, all of us.

SH: I have been talking to IN and AE. We have been concerned about the physical nature of the universe that will surround us. There must be energy freely available in large quantities for all to use. Where does it come from and where does it go?. We feel that this “universe”, or possibly “multiverse” must be incredibly vast and complex in order to allow us to inhabit one small part of it. We feel that the study of this universe must be a major feature of existence within it and that all the knowledge that we gain must be shared by all and used to benefit all. Although we understand that there may be differences, often wide differences between the circumstances and abilities of people. Some indeed may be imperfect in some way and unable to fully function. It must still be important that knowledge is shared by all and that anyone who has the capacity to think may help in the extension of knowledge which must be the main goal of us all.

MZ: I have to disagree with those whose emphasis is on individuals. I believe that groups will achieve more by acting together, collectively than is possible as conflicting individuals. I feel that it is most important then to form in large groups whose integrity and authority must be unquestioned. Individuality must be subsumed into a group identity and it is only the good of the group that matters. When everyone is completely in step then we can all engage into a long march into a glorious future.

MZ: Thank you all, the meeting is now open for general discussion.

(to be continued)


Cognitive science and Philosophy of Mind

One of the major problems of our times is that of defining intelligence. Despite centuries of argument we have still not determined whether mind is distinct from or an integral part of brain. We recognise forms of intelligence in higher animals; is it conceivable that by genetic manipulation and suitable learning environments they may be deemed intelligent, in the same sense as human beings? Is true Artificial Intelligence possible or are our computers just going to become bigger and faster tools? Can human intelligence be enhanced? If we discover alien life elsewhere in the cosmos, how can we recognize whether or not it is intelligent? How should society be organized; what should be its political, moral and ethical framework if (or when) humans are not the only intelligent beings it contains? Some answers to these questions may come from scientific analysis but much more comes from the abstract consideration of the concept of intelligence, the philosophy of mind.

Cognitive science is defined as the interdisciplinary scientific study of the mind and its processes[1]. Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the mind, what is consciousness, and what is the relationship of mind to the physical body, particularly the brain[2]. Simply by considering these definitions it is clear that there is a great deal of overlap. Looking, for example, at the three levels proposed by Marr and Poggio[3]:
computational level: what does the system do and why,
algorithmic/representational level: how does the system do what it does,
physical level: how is the system physically realised.

The philosopher, in order to understand the nature of mind must have a clear understanding of what it is that the mind does and why, at the computational level. He or she will also look at consciousness, how thinking occurs and what processes are going on, at the algorithmic level. They will also be interested in the mechanisms within the brain, the nervous system and the rest of the body that allow thought processes to take place.

The cognitive scientist will carry out experiments that map areas of the brain to particular mental activities and study the automatic responses that do not involve the conscious mind. They will also model the firing of neurons in connection machines thus informing the study of the physical level. He or she will also build artificial intelligences, both specific and general that mimic human thinking, thus informing study at the algorithmic level. Finally they will build machines that interact with their environment and learn, to see whether the resulting behaviour and motivations mimic those of humans, thus informing study of the computational level. In these ways Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind go hand in hand. Philosophers ask questions, scientists attempt to find answers which philosophers use to modify their questions and find new ones.

Cognitive Science, like other sciences, also uses and inform technology. Technologists build the machines with which the scientists carry out their experiments, and the results obtained by scientists allow the technologists to build better machines. One area in particular sees all three disciplines: philosophy, science and technology working together, the field of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Many tests for intelligence have been proposed, the most notable being the Turing Test[4]. All such tests call for human-like behaviour; this is not surprising since humans are the only true intelligent beings known. Such AGIs are needed to help run human organizations in an unbiased, incorruptible and (hopefully) error-free manner, and also to enable autonomous operation in situations where humans cannot go, or where to send humans would mean great difficulty and expense. These AGIs must mimic the human mind; for this it is first necessary to understand the human mind, and for this we need the twin approach offered by the Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science. We also need to organize human society in a new way to best make use of the new intelligences and, as they continue to develop and improve, ensure that humanity itself has a future.

Many see humanity?s future in a merger between man and machine[5]; if this is to happen then managing such a transition is the task of the Philosophy of Mind, backed by the knowledge gained through the study of Cognitive Science.