Schwitzgebel On Our Moral Duties To Artificial Intelligences

Eric Schwitzgebel asks an interesting question:

Suppose that we someday create artificial beings similar to us in their conscious experience, in their intelligence, in their range of emotions. What moral duties would we have to them?

Schwitzgebel’s stipulations are quite extensive, for these beings are “similar to us in their conscious experience, in their intelligence, in their range of emotions.” Thus, one straightforward response to the question might be, “The same duties that we take ourselves to have to other conscious, intelligent, sentient beings–for which our moral theories provide us adequate guidance.” But the question that Schwitzgebel raises is challenging because our relationship to these artificial beings is of a special kind: we have created, initialized, programmed, parametrized, customized and traine them. We are, somehow, responsible for them. (Schwitzgebel considers and rejects two other approaches to reckoning our duties towards AIs: first, that we are justified in simply disregarding any such obligations because of our species’ distance from them, and second, that the very fact of having granted these beings existence–which is presumably infinitely better than non-existence–absolves me of any further duties toward them.) This is how Schwitzgebel addresses the question of our duties to them–with some deft consideration of the complications introduced by this responsibility and the autonomy of the artificial beings in question–and goes on to conclude:

If the AI’s desires are not appropriate — for example, if it desires things contrary to its flourishing — I’m probably at least partly to blame, and I am obliged to do some mitigation that I would probably not be obliged to do in the case of a fellow human being….On the general principle that one has a special obligation to clean up messes that one has had a hand in creating, I would argue that we have a special obligation to ensure the well-being of any artificial intelligences we create.

The analogy with children that Schwitzgebel correctly invokes can be made to do a little more work. Our children’s moral failures vex us more than those of others do; they prompt more extensive corrective interventions by us precisely because our assessments of their actions are just a little more severe. As such, when we encounter artificial beings of the kind noted above, we will find our reckonings of our duties toward them significantly impinged on by whether ‘our children’ have, for instance, disappointed or pleased us. Artificial intelligences will not have been created without some conception of their intended ends; their failures or successes in attaining them will influence a consideration of our appropriate duties to them and will make more difficult a recognition and determination of the boundaries we should not transgress in our ‘mitigation’ of their actions and in our ensuring their ‘well-being.’ After all, parents are more tempted to extensively intervene in their child’s life when they perceive a deviation from a path they believe their children should take in order to achieve an objective the parent deems desirable.

By requiring respect and consideration for their autonomous moral natures, children exercise our moral senses acutely. We should not be surprised to be similarly examined by the artificial intelligences we create and set loose upon the world.

Walter White’s Rage Against The Dying Light

Ross Douthat ponders the question of what makes Walter White the target of such sympathy–and perhaps even affection– even as it became clear that his criminality and amorality had run amuck:

The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own. As James Bowman wrote in The New Atlantis, embracing Walt doesn’t requiring embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”

But people don’t subscribe to moral codes in the abstract; rather, they find a set of practices and customs that best express the instinctive, visceral emotions and drives that animate them, and get behind those.

What groundswell of passions is evoked by Walter White? First and foremost, Walter is a dying man. And he isn’t dying in the sense of being a ‘marked man,’ one who is destined for death by the hangman’s noose or the assassin’s bullet; he carries his death, his decay, inside him. His body has turned traitor and betrayed him. But Walter has not decided to lay down and face death with calm, resigned acceptance; he has not stood by and let that quisling,cancer, do its dirty work in peace. Instead, he has raged and raged and raged. The diagnosis that Walter received in Breaking Bad‘s first episode lit a fire within him, and it has not been quenched; it made his sense sharper; it reanimated his quiescent sexuality (as evinced in his almost feral lovemaking to Skyler soon thereafter).

It is this straining at the leash, this savage slapping aside of the Grim Reaper, that so provokes our admiration.  We know our death can come in many ways: perhaps suddenly, painfully, brutally; perhaps silently, while we sleep; perhaps we will receive a proclamation like Walter’s. We wonder how we will respond: will we fall to our knees, groveling for mercy, soiling ourselves, shaking at the knees? Will we retreat into a sullen silence and in shocked disappointment, refuse further intercourse with this world? Or will we, like Walter, snap back hard, every ounce of our being straining for one last demonstration that we can still resist the inevitable fate that awaits all human beings?

A minor weakness in Breaking Bad has been its refusal to make Walter’s illness more prominent. Perhaps a few more exposures to the other science, besides the cooking of meth, that is now ever-present in Walter’s life: the chemo, the radiation. Perhaps a little more visible pain and discomfort, forcing more awareness on the viewer that Walter is a fatally ill man. But these are minor omissions, because we have known for a while that every act that we see on the screen is, despite its running counter to many norms of ours, an act of visible, angry resistance to a preordained fate.

We might express our resistance differently, and that is why we disapprove too, of Walter. But the rage against the dying light? That will always  evoke our admiration.