Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Moral issues raised by artificial consciousness

I wonder if many people have thought about ethical issues that may be raised by systems that embody artificial intelligence, and that are possibly conscious (but I would guess that anyone who has seen Spielberg & Kubrick’s AI might have). There seems little doubt that humans will eventually, perhaps even soon (on a time scale of tens of years), create artificial systems that exhibit intelligence. The issue will be, of course, are they conscious?
Now, as everyone who has taken a college philosophy class knows, we only infer the consciousness of other humans (and, to some more questionable extent, that of other animals). Each of us only directly knows our own consciousness (thank you, Rene Descartes). Consciousness is subjective, and I do not see any way it can be objectively proven to exist in another entity. While we may all infer it as being virtually certain that biological systems have it, it is by no means clear how we can determine whether a human-made system is conscious. That is, if it has a sense of self. Or, to put it in the terms that present day students of consciousness use, whether a system has that peculiar feeling of what it is like to be someone. But no doubt it will eventually come to seem that some artificially produced systems do have it. How then will we deal with them? Will it be ethical to deny them the rights that humans have? Will it be right to use them as servants or as slaves? Will it be right to terminate their existence, scrap them, and interchange central processors (or whatever would serve as a brain). Can they be punished for “crimes”, or will they be considered as lacking free will and hence be immune from punishment? These questions are just a partial list of any of the issues we could all come up with. Spielberg & Kubrick’s entertaining film aside, how many philosophers have begun to address these issues?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Some Random Thoughts about "What I Believe"

To a reasonably high degree, I believe the following things to be true:
We humans are animals--apes, basically---with brains that have evolved to solve certain mental tasks better than any other animal. This enhanced mental capability is the human animal’s tool of survival. But, reason is very hard for most people when it comes to thinking about things of a more abstract nature, or in the heat of emotion. Our brains are only wired for reason or critical thought in certain kinds of circumstances (e.g., understanding how mechanical things work, predicting danger, how to acquire food or how to obtain sexual gratification).
Everyone is by nature selfish (although the appearance of altruism can be very convincing in some cases, it ultimately serves a genetic succession purpose—or in some cases a socially egoistic purpose).
Biological evolution, per Darwin, Dawkins, etc---has occurred, and explains most of the biological world, including human traits and tendencies.
The “Hell” many religions have imagined to await unbelievers and evil doers does not exist. If there is an afterlife and a God, Hell is not part of the package, at least not in an eternal lasting sense. Rather, Hell is something that certain human institutions have dreamed up to try to scare people into their camp, or in some cases, to enjoyably imagine themselves having the “last laugh” (yes, I fear some people can be that spiteful, although to be fair I don’t think they have really thought about how cruel a wish that is on other people—at least, I hope they don’t). Institutions that have subscribed to the concept have in some cases thrived, because it serves as "an offer you can't refuse" (if you were to be convinced that Hell is real), and hence membership in, and associated donations to, the religion tend to be obtained.
Humor and joyous merriment are great boons to humankind. But humor can sometimes turn nasty, mocking, and cynical, and hence can serve evil purposes.
Morality is not relative. Rather, it is based on human society, the nature of the human being, plus on something along th elines of the “prisoners dilemma" of game theory.
With a somewhat lesser degree of certainty, I am inclined to believe that our brains are not designed to (i.e., have not evolved to be able to) solve the “big metaphysical questions”, for example, that of existence: “why is there something rather than nothing?”; The riddle of free will vs. determinism: “do we have free will, what is free will, etc”; and the mystery of “consciousness” ---who/what has it, how does it emerge from biological tissue, can we create it artificially, etc.
With these issue it seems it is very likely beyond our mental capabilities to even frame the right questions. Rather, the human brain is limited to practical things That is, questions and issues that can be solved by engineering, science, and technology. This we are potentially superb at.
Regarding politics, I think that the “Libertarian” view of limiting the power of the government to securing "negative rights" is correct in most respects. But it will be a long time before most of the earth’s population can be converted to this view. And, there may still be improvements to be made in framing a fully consistent libertarian political philosophy. Socialism in it’s various forms and degrees is wrong, but is at least partly driven by a prevalent human strategy of trying to manipulate other people for one’s own benefit. In particular, it is usually attractive to an “elite class” (many academics, for example) because they resent the success of the practical humans, and sense that a strong central government will actually lead to privileges for the elite class. Of course, Orwell exposed these motives in 1984 and Animal Farm.
My strong suspicion is that the world’s religions are wrong, in most respects. While some may have intuited or captured some of the truth, they have not got most of it right. Among the theistic religions, Christianity is the most plausible and highly developed theoretically (i.e., theologically), while, from the little I know about Buddhism, it seems a reasonable "philosophy" about a lot of things. Hinduism also seems insightful in some ways, from what I have read about it. Islam I would give almost a zero chance of being true.
Now for a few predictions for the distant future. What the human race will likely come to understand, accept, or do eventually.
First, my optimistic, hopeful perspective (my pessimistic, fearful side in a moment): in this first perspective, in most respects, life on the planet will eventually become much much better: It will become widely and generally accepted that religious dogma has no place in the state (government), and should never be coerced, and never be the cause of war (5 to 10 thousand years).
And it will become generally accepted that war is an intolerable evil, and peace will prevail for all the earth (but this will take perhaps 5 to 10 thousand years). Science will learn how life began, and it will be widely accepted and understood (5 to 10 thousand years).
Much more will be learned about whether there is life elsewhere in the universe, but this may not be for a very long time, perhaps eons. New, as yet unimagined, modes of communication and travel will eventually be discovered to make this possible.
Crimes, such as murder and robbery, will become exceedingly rare, if not altogether vanished (this also will take a very long time, something like 5 to 10 thousand years).
Science will continue to progress and learn. In particular, physics, the most basic science, will progress to a point that we can not even imagine right now. A physics book from the year 2500 would completely mystify our most brilliant physicists of today.
Artificial life will be perfected, and robotic forms of life will be virtually indistinguishable from natural. The human body parts will be intermingled and replaced by artificial forms as they wear out or become diseased or injured; at some point, where what is a human and what is a robot will become blurred, as parts are intermingled. Perhaps only the brain will stay organic--or maybe even not that.
The natural life span will be dramatically increased, and disease made much more rare (I doubt that it will be eliminated entirely). Accidents will become less rare, and less fatal due to the availability of artificial parts.
Biases and prejudices (ethnic, racial, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) will eventually vanish, on a time scale of perhaps hundreds of years.
Music will merge into other art forms, although the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart (and others) will remain effective and emotionally edifying to humans (and robots?).

Now, an alternative, Pessimistic view (in this perspective, life on the planet will get worse): The religious dogma will prevail, become embedded in the state (government); at present, it seems like many Muslims would do this if they could.
A nuclear war might occur, or a nuclear device will go off, triggering a catastrophic war, and the state of human society will suffer a great setback.
Governments will gain more power, and a statist world will prevail. This may be driven by an evident human tendency toward envy, which tends to want to create sameness, and equality in all things (like Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House vision).
Some natural catastrophe (like an asteroid) will decimate human civilization, and humankind will revert to a more primitive state.
While I view it as dubious, it is possible that the ecological doomsayers are right, and mankind’s activities will bring about disaster for the planet.
What I definitely do not know or understand:
Why there is anything rather than nothing? (my long time psychological obsession).
If there is a purpose or plan for humankind, by some outside agency…and if there is, what it might be.
If we survive death in any sense…and if so, what might that be like.
If there is a God or gods, how to imagine or model Him/Her/Them.
How to make any sense out of the concept of free will; how to make any sense out of the concept of strict determinism; how to imagine any reasonable alternative, since these seem all inclusive.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Can the stimulus package and the bailouts really help?

Re the stimulus package and the bailout, as of February 2009

I have bad feelings about these things. I haven’t looked into the details, or into all aspects of them. But on very general principles I am inclined to think it will not help pull us out of the bad economic situation we are in. I dearly hope I am wrong.
My reasoning is that neither have much to do with increasing the actual wealth of the US economy. Taking money from the taxpayers---or worse yet printing more money---and doling it back out to the taxpayers seems to be at best a null action, and at worst a step backward.
I suspect that the real problem is that we tend to be too light in terms of production of goods; that is, I think we lack sufficient activities such as manufacturing and invention of new tangible products, which together really constitute the substance of wealth. True, we have an active service sector, which generates a lot of paper products---a few years back in a Dave Barry column he cynically (but insightfully) referred to “that great American product, the polished final report”-----but too much of this seems to be in the realm of government and defense related areas, not in the commercial sectors where it might count the most.
It is true that Americans seem to have become, in the last 20 or so years, the workaholics of the western world, but it is not clear that the kind of work we tend to do contributes much to tangible wealth, but rather is often paper shuffling and services of dubious desirability or worth to the average consumer. Perhaps way too much of it is “white collar” work either aimed at government markets, or aimed at persuading or convincing the general public to buy things that they probably really do not need or want. Perhaps one might say that we have too many MBA’s and lawyers, and not enough people willing to roll up their sleeves and do real work.
Today all companies emphasize growth, but too often this seems to be achieved by shuffling departments around and reorganizing in ways that seem to reduce to value of the service or products to the customers. There is only so far that such cuts and structural redesigns can go toward attaining growth of profits. Eventually gains made in such ways must run dry.Perhaps the deep problem is the decline of the work ethic and true commercial spirit of our nation. All nations rise and fall in time, and perhaps we have passed our zenith. As I said at the start, I certainly hope I am wrong, and that our economy and spirit will bloom once again.