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The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

The state of artificial intelligence is rapidly developing. It is entirely possible that we will soon develop independently rational computer programs — programs that can think for themselves. From an ethical perspective, how should we deal with such a situation?

It could be argued that such a being would not be deserving of ethical treatment, as its actions would be completely deterministic. However, ethical decisions are not necessarily based on free will — besides, we don’t have free will either.

The treatment warranted to artificial beings is dependent on what school of morality one is following. Some would argue that moral treatment is only warranted to rational beings. For example, a Deontologist would argue that any rational being has a certain moral worth. In that sense, an artificial being should be morally no different from a person.

However, that is not the perspective that I will be taking. I believe that moral rights are not inherent, but are only based on what rights will lead to the preferred consequences. How we should treat an artificial being entirely depends on the circumstances of the situation.

If this rational being is capable of desires, then we have a moral obligation to not inhibit it from fulfilling its desires (provided that those desires are not harmful). This seems simple enough; it is no different from how we are obligated to treat any other person. Problems may arise, though, when we consider how it is possible for us to know that an artificial being is rational.

One way to determine how rational a computer program is is to administer the Turing test — if a person can have a conversation with this computer and not be able to tell the difference between it and an actual intelligent person, then it can be considered intelligent. But is this test sufficient?

This raises another interesting question — how do we know that other people are rational beings? We assume that they are, but how we actually know this seems rather mysterious. Do I really know that you are rational because of how I’ve seen you behave, or do I merely assume that you are rational because I am rational and you are like me? Is it possible that that assumption is sufficient?

A being could be considered rational if it can take a situation and deduce a conclusion. A being could be considered rational if it can learn from previous experiences and use its new knowledge to better deduce what actions to take in certain situations. Computers, though, might cheat this. Instead of using whatever it is that we humans use to decide what to do, it may instead simply use brute force to simulate thousands of possible outcomes and then determine which one is best. Is this really cheating, or does it still count?

Interestingly enough, I do not believe that this sort of brute force is truly cheating. Perhaps trying every possible combination would not be true rationality. But even we humans do simulate different possible outcomes before we try things. Have you ever been about to make an important decision, and first stopped to consider what might happen if you decide one way or the other? We make this kind of decision all the time. It could hardly be considered cheating if computers do it. Unless, of course, it is cheating when we do it.

I’ll leave you with that thought. If you have any responses, I encourage you to leave a comment.

  1. Receuvium
    April 8, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Well the results of a Turing Test can be a great example of how an application can appear lifelike and intelligent, when it actually understands nothing and is just acting based on binary programming.

    Biological life evolved over billions of years to the level of incredible complexity we have today. Now we’re trying to replicate the same intricate process through a digital mainframe. The level of programming complexity for machines has absolutely nothing on our biological animal kingdom. Even though we can do amazing things with technology now, our programs are still less than the digital equivalent of bacteria.

    True artificial intelligence, I think, will need to evolve. As with biological evolution, it will need to be a self-perpetuating process. And the nature of a real artificial intelligence will be utterly alien to humans. We may dream of replicants who’ll demand equal rights in the near future, but I envisage a far more bizarre (and distant) future for ‘artificial life.’

    • April 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm

      Even if it is “just acting based on binary programming”, that doesn’t mean it is not intelligent. After all, we are “just acting based on synaptic programming”. I think you do have a point, though. Will we ever be capable of artificial intelligence programming? I think maybe we will, although it’s still a good ways off. It’s rather difficult to predict the future.

  2. Receuvium
    April 12, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Oh yeah, all life is definitely programmed, and the fundamental difference between synaptic and binary programming doesn’t mean that a binary system can’t be intelligent. It only means its thought process will be very, very different to biological lifeforms.

    One great example of a Turing Test, which I came across five years ago, is the chatbot Jabberwacky (http://www.jabberwacky.com) which evolves based on the responses of thousands upon thousands of humans interacting with it. It’s ‘learning’ to appear completely intelligent and rational. But does it really grasp the synthetic dialogue, or is it just picking Sentence A to match Sentence B without any further understanding? One creepy thing about it is: because it absorbs people’s responses, it often insists to whoever’s chatting with it that THEY, in fact, are the bot, and Jabberwacky is a real person.

    This entry (and your blog) is right down that alley, so I hope you find it interesting!

    • April 12, 2010 at 12:31 pm

      But the question is, do we really grasp the syntactic dialogue, or are we just picking Sentence A to match Sentence B without any further understanding?

  3. Receuvium
    April 13, 2010 at 1:15 pm


    That really makes me think.

    I’d argue that we do understand, but when I go to explain why, there’s no reason why a computer doesn’t as well. We understand the intent of dialogue when, to take a really simply example, someone says, “Identify the blue coat out of all these items.” Well a computer can be programmed to recognise the words ‘blue’ and ‘coat’, so clearly it does understand. Even if it’s only a basic command, it must have some element of awareness.

    But still, with the ‘smart’ chatbots, the seemingly authentic chat is still just an illusion. The human is still exchanging information, but the program doesn’t assimilate any meaning from it – it only learns where to apply Sentence A to Sentence B.

    From that, we can gather that machines can understand, but that any lifelike complexity in their understanding may still be a long way off. The Turing Test still isn’t an accurate indication of intelligence (but it IS very interesting).

    • April 13, 2010 at 2:48 pm

      Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense, I’m in class right now and I’m trying to pay attention at the same time as writing this.

      When it comes down to it, I agree with you. A computer theoretically could be able to understand sentences in the way we do. Right now, though, they just find patterns in sentences and choose an appropriate response. In a way, this is what we do: if someone says “how are you”, you respond “fine”, without really thinking about the meaning of what you’re saying. But we are still capable of determining the meaning of the words if we really think about it. If a computer could do this, then it could be considered intelligent.

      In that case, what is an accurate indication of intelligence? Perhaps if you can ask a computer to perform a complex task or explain something to you, and it can figure out the execution or explanation, then it can be considered intelligent. This is pretty similar to how we determine human intelligence. But that reminds me of how bad we are at determining human intelligence (IQ tests are famously narrow-minded).

      As far as I can tell, the way chatbots work right now is that they say things and then see how people respond; after building up some data, they can decide what sorts of responses are generally appropriate. But an actually intelligent computer should be able to analyze the meanings of the words and decide what to say, like humans do.

      But would a sophisticated chatbot really not be considered intelligent? It would certainly not be intelligence in the way we think of it, but it might still be intelligence. If the computer can make decisions then it could be considered intelligent, even if its method of decision-making is different from how we normally think of intelligence.

  4. October 21, 2013 at 3:53 am


    Your link for free will says:

    “Why Free Will Is Impossible

    1. Every event is either caused by something or caused by nothing.
    2. If an event is caused by something: it is not free because it is a reaction dependent on external cause.
    3. If an event is caused by itself: events can’t be their own cause so this is impossible.
    4. If an event is caused by nothing: it is unpredictable and therefore random; randomness is not free will.

    Therefore, free will cannot exist.”

    To me this only proves that events do not cause themselves. A person given a situation will make a decision – even if it is a decision to do nothing. A twin in the same situation could make a totally different choice – such is the whims of free choice – free will. Only when someone is holding a gun to your head do you not have a choice. Actually you even have a choice then. To do the thing forced to do or not do it and possibly face a consequence.

    Also, if there is no free will then there is no need to have penalties for bad choices. They would have no effect on anyone else making choices – so why bother?

    If choices were predictable, then we would have no inventions as everything would be decided based on someone else’s actions. There would be no original thoughts. Choices and people are not predictable. Some one would decide to do one thing one time and try another thing another time.

    This argument seems to be one where people are trying to get out of the consequences of their decisions. Everyone has a brain and it is to be used to help or harm you or your fellow man. A judge will not throw out a case because you say you have no free will.
    A case will only be thrown out if you are declared incompetent to stand trial.

    Also, animals are not put on trial by a jury of their peers. They are judged only by humans who can make choices for when the animal has done something unacceptable to humans.
    Animals do not have free will, they have instinct. As humans we can not only learn, but learn how to learn, and learn how to learn how to learn. We go as far as we apply ourselves to a problem. We can stop anywhere along that path that we want to.


    • October 21, 2013 at 8:50 pm

      I think you and I are using different definitions of “free will.”

      • October 22, 2013 at 1:12 am

        That could well be. I’ll have to look into the different definitions. You are an intelligent man from everything I read here. Will find out more.

      • October 23, 2013 at 2:14 am

        Here is the Merriam-Webster definition:
        “Full Definition of FREE WILL
        : voluntary choice or decision
        : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention”


  5. December 2, 2013 at 9:01 pm
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