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If a robot is conscious, is it OK to turn it off? The moral implications of building true AIs

Philosophers say now is the time to mull over what qualities should grant an artificially intelligent machine moral standing.

In the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “The Measure of a Man,” Data, an android crew member of the Enterprise, is to be dismantled for research purposes unless Captain Picard can argue that Data deserves the same rights as a human being. Naturally the question arises: What is the basis upon which something has rights? What gives an entity moral standing?

The philosopher Peter Singer argues that creatures that can feel pain or suffer have a claim to moral standing. He argues that nonhuman animals have moral standing, since they can feel pain and suffer. Limiting it to people would be a form of speciesism, something akin to racism and sexism.

Without endorsing Singer’s line of reasoning, we might wonder if it can be extended further to an android robot like Data. It would require that Data can either feel pain or suffer. And how you answer that depends on how you understand consciousness and intelligence.

As real artificial intelligence technology advances toward Hollywood’s imagined versions, the question of moral standing grows more important. If AIs have moral standing, philosophers like me reason, it could follow that they have a right to life. That means you cannot simply dismantle them, and might also mean that people shouldn’t interfere with their pursuing their goals.

Two flavors of intelligence and a test

IBM’s Deep Blue chess machine was successfully trained to beat grandmaster Gary Kasparov. But it could not do anything else. This computer had what’s called domain-specific intelligence.

On the other hand, there’s the kind of intelligence that allows for the ability to do a variety of things well. It is called domain-general intelligence. It’s what lets people cook, ski and raise children – tasks that are related, but also very different.

Artificial general intelligence, AGI, is the term for machines that have domain-general intelligence. Arguably no machine has yet demonstrated that kind of intelligence. This summer, a startup called…

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