Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Onto the Next Gear

The Age of Artificial Intelligence, the age where intelligent machines play a central role in our society and in our economy is here. This is not science fiction or the prelude to a Hollywood movie; this will be the reality for most of us starting the later part of the twenty-first century. With search engines, bots, drones, and prototypes of self-driving cars, we can already perceive first glimpses of these agents of artificial intelligence. I do not wish to call for general alarmism but, rather, to only too briefly discuss what may be an important inflexion point in the history of human progress, as a handful before it. The coming-together, with enough industrial maturity for large-scale production, of our semi-conducting and digital technologies; our algorithmic and computational knowledge; and our mechanical technologies will usher a new age upon us. After the mastery of fire; agriculture and animal husbandry; the alphabet and abstract scripts; the forging and casting of bronze then iron; and the birth of empirical sciences and the industrial revolution, self-adapting artificial intelligence is, likely, the next driver of a great change to our way of life, our socio-political structures, and even our ethics. If this indeed turns out to be our next technological high-plateau, it will have, as those abovementioned that preceded it, many deep implications on all human societies.

Some of these implications will be on our professional endeavours and our socio-economic structures. Since the dawn of agriculture, some human beings have relied on the surplus production of others for material sufficiency. Agricultural surplus allowed for hierarchical social structures, but also for greater possibility of leisure; and from there, more time for speculation, aesthetics, knowledge development, invention, and discovery. In fact, manpower surplus has shaped social structures and traditions across the globe for millennia. Only, in the age of smart and adaptive robotics en masse, this economic way of being will be challenged, as the surplus on which we will depend shall increasingly come from technological agents. This will not happen overnight; it will be a gradual process. Nonetheless, a critical mass will be reached in the not-so-distant future, even in the services sector, and I fail to see how this will not precipitate important socio-political changes and reorganisations. Possibilities include more deflation stemming from gains in productivity (e.g. we can already take notice of numerous products and services that have become cheaper and more accessible over the past decade with digitisation and the Internet); the question of ownership of the distributed productive capacities (i.e. who will own these widely available smart robots, certain monopolies or all of us?); the problem of subsistence of low income populations, those who would be deprived from such smart agents and whose livelihood depends on providing services replaced by robots; and even, changes to the traditional ways of exchange of goods and services, including the notion of money itself. Furthermore, as it is unfortunately often the case with new technologies, intelligent robots will have direct consequences on the conduct of human warfare, as we already see with the increased usage of drones.

Other implications will be philosophical and ethical, with the increased dissociation between intelligence and consciousness on one side, and biological life on the other, even as far as the transfer and continued functioning of human consciousness and memory following biological death. In addition to the problems of ‘immortality’ it might generate, developed and self-recognising artificial intelligence will expose us fresh to ethical questions that have preoccupied some thinkers for millennia but remained fringe specialist subjects up until now. The problem of what makes personhood will become of a more general importance in society with the coming of enduring artificial consciousness and greater self-learning and self-adapting artificial intelligence. Equally, the problem of what makes someone human will emerge again with the emergence of alternative developed consciousness; and this problem will theoretically be as vivid as when Homo sapiens co-existed with its cousins of the Homo genus, such as Homo neanderthalensis, who equally had developed consciousness (not that Homo sapiens bothered then with what makes them human; they mostly cared about staying alive). This time around, we will be facing another co-existing consciousness, only of the ‘artificial’ kind. Again, these are not fanciful scenarios today but in the remit of where artificial intelligence can take us. The ethical and legal implications are evidently tremendous, and the other equivalent ‘ethical earthquake’ would be to come face-to-face with a sophisticated and conscious alien civilisation. Ironically, it is quite likely that we will create artificial consciousness before meeting any such outside civilisation.

On another aspect, the frontier between virtual and real will become blurrier with the expansion of an intelligent digital world. ‘Virtual reality’ and reality as we have envisaged it so far will be harder to distinguish. The body does not differentiate easily, especially without prior awareness of their origin, sensations triggered by virtual vs. real drivers. Furthermore, one of the main ways by which we distinguish the virtual from the real is in the prevalence of the latter. All of this is subject to change with widespread artificial intelligence. We only have to think about us living constantly in a self-adapting virtual environment initiated by our own; or think about what a robot finely imitating a baby would do to our parenting instincts. And if we have a tendency to anthropomorphise biological animals, it will indeed prove difficult for our conscious control to constantly alert us against sensations caused by a well-engineered virtual reality or human-like robots.

These are only some of the deep implications that an age with mass-scale developed and conscious intelligence will likely bring.


Is it Legal? Is it Moral? (1/3)

The permanent conflict between what is legal and what is moral is a key sign of our times and of our modern cultures; it is an important conflict and a great challenge to almost all of our current social considerations. As Action (and most human action is social) is central to our living, to our identity building, and to the shaping of our general human culture and civilisation (whatever the latter might be), then it is a matter of simple inference to consider the subject of legality vs. morality as central to our humanity. Our action is governed and/or judged by a certain compass, and this compass is often legal, moral, or a combination of the two. It is precisely in this confusion of the compass to use, and in the circumstantiality of the compass we use, that we continue to find great difficulty in our days in acting and judging social action. Should we base our actions on some legal code, legal practice, or legal tradition? Or should our action be ultimately accounted for by a higher morality? When should we consider that doing something morally right is more important that doing something legal, and why? And why is it, in any case, that we have this conflict between legality and morality? What is it so difficult in unifying them and ridding ourselves of the problem?

Before we continue further, we shall note that we will purposefully concentrate in this three-part series on the conflict between legal and moral within the context of one particular general culture (say for example, the European culture, American culture, or Chinese culture), and not address the even more important and more difficult subject of reconciling different legal codes and different moralities pertaining to different cultures. In other words, we will limit ourselves to the opposition between one legal system and one moral system only, which is admittedly quite a simplification of our global social reality as it presents itself today.

The subject of what is moral in opposition to what is legal has been quite alive in recent geopolitics, in both explicit and implicit manners. Let us take two recent examples: we witness heated debates today on the subject of surveillance programs and their scope, as well as on the subject of Western powers intervening in foreign conflict areas and what scope of intervention exactly.

The current US administration’s defence line on the surveillance program consists of saying that the programs currently in place are actually legal, or, slightly more controversially, are not forbidden by the US constitution in place. These surveillance programs, it holds, do not tap into the content of the communications of US citizens on US soil, even if it records them, unless under direct US court authorisation or warrant; hence, these programs respect the civil liberties of the US citizens as protected by the US constitution. As for the rest, i.e. as for what is not strictly forbidden by the US constitution, it remains silent on what is really happening. It is worth noting that this ‘rest’ is around 6.8 billion people around the world… We can then naturally ask, are the practices of these surveillance programs morally acceptable acts, by the same moral standards that the American culture holds high? The scope of the US constitution is predominantly US citizens and US soil; we do not expect of any constitution or legal code of any particular country to legislate everything concerning every foreign citizen, soil, and circumstance. Hence, if these surveillance practices are indeed legal under US legal code, are they really moral?

Let us now consider the case of intervention in foreign conflict areas, such as Syria or Central Africa, and the debate over whether militarily-capable powers, especially Western ones, should intervene in foreign lands to secure peace and protect the innocent, under which conditions, following whose decision and support, and according to which defined scope and objectives. Here, we must say, we are not any longer in the realm of any one particular culture anymore because of the international aspect of the problem; nevertheless, there exists today an international legal code for such geopolitical matters, and I like to think (or hope) that most human beings in this world can agree or do agree on some very basic human rights and moral values, such as the protection of innocent children from being massacred in a large-scale manner. Western powers intervening in conflict zones without the formal consent of the United Nations is illegal under current international law. Many have expressed this view, for example in the case of Syria, and they are right in saying so from a legal point of view. NATO consent and Arab League consent in the case of Syria are not commensurate with UN consent; hence, a military move in Syria without UN consent would remain illegal under current international law and how it is structured, regardless of what NATO and the Arab League might think. But should we not do anything in acute conflict zones because of that? Is it ethical to have children and innocent people killed continuously and on a mass-scale; know that this is not likely to stop in the near future; know that if anything it is actually worsening; and sit idly or shrug and say we can not do anything because the UN Security Council can not come to a decision on the subject? The current UN political structure is a relic of post World War II dynamics and needs modernisation – most reasonable people know that. Several attempts have already been made to discuss the subject of the governance of the UN with no luck so far; International Law and its enforcement systems remain highly deficient today. So what are we to do in cases of acute human conflicts, especially when weapons of mass killing are being used? Here, in contrast with the above, and despite opposing wars in general from having seen their consequences first-hand, I find myself closer in agreement with what the current US administration wanted to do in Syria or what France is doing today in some parts of Africa.

What is important to note is that legal definitions and structures do change with politics; moral values and ethical systems are also prone to politics but less so and in a different, slower manner.

[To be continued].