Archive for September, 2012

Recent research at UCL provides corroboration for the claim that elite sports players often feel they have plenty of time to think about how they address a ball which is actually coming at them so fast that normal human beings probably shouldn’t even see it.

This effect, a perceived slowing down of time, is the kind of thing which I think would once have been shrugged off as unresearchable, outside the scope of proper science: how can we tell how things seem to people? These days we’re bolder, and the team in this case came up with an experiment in which some subjects were asked to tap a screen while others were merely asked to observe. Those who were asked to prepare action reported feeling the time they had available seemed longer.

The finding makes a certain obvious sense in that being granted extra mental time when a particularly crucial task is coming up is bound to be helpful. But it’s also a little puzzling: if the brain is capable of giving us more time, why doesn’t it do so routinely? It would never be a bad thing to have more time for reflection; if the facility only gets turned on in these special circumstances there must either be some downside or cost which makes the brain ration its use, or something else is wrong.

It’s not altogether implausible that revving up our mental processes might have an energy cost, or that our neurons might be able to speed up a bit only temporarily; but as always with consciousness there’s a deeper issue. Did mental processing actually speed up, or did it simply feel as if it did; or indeed, was the time merely remembered as passing more slowly? There’s an assumption here that when we are playing baseball or tennis control is fully conscious, but actually it’s far from clear that the deliberative  level of thought has much to do with it – it generally seems more a matter of gut reaction than strategic debate.

Another complicating factor is that we don’t actually perceive the passage of time directly, in the way we can observe spatial sizes. There is no speial organ devoted to measuring time, and it seems likely that if we do have to assess time (we’re pretty bad at it- try telling when two minutes have passed without looking at a clock) we pick up on several different indirect clues.

It may well be that one way the brain works out how much time has passed is by counting the number of ‘events’ it remembers and assuming that the gap between each of them is about the same. ‘Events’ would be mental ones, which explains why outwardly uneventful time may seem to pass very slowly – because we keep checking our watches or asking ourselves how much longer, so that there is a steady stream of mental acts, whereas when we’re caught up in something interesting there are none of these mental markers put down and time seems to fly.

It seems highly plausible to me that when we’re asked to prepare mentally for a given act (whether tapping the screen or hitting a perfect drive to the boundary) a sequence of this kind is set up, in which we keep asking ourselves ‘am I going to do it now?’ or ‘is it time yet?’. If that’s true the chances are the impression of having more time to react is actually an illusion, though it may reflect a genuinely improved state of readiness.

I couldn’t help reflecting that the conditions of these experiments rather resembled those in the famous series of experiments by Benjamin Libet which seemed to show that a decision to move one’s hand at a given moment had actually been taken significantly before that same decision entered consciousness. Libet’s subjects were asked to get ready to act in just the sort of way which might have led to the kind of time-dilation effect considered in the UCL research. Libet’s ingenious system for measuring the time of decision, with subjects reporting the position of a clock at the vital moment, should be fairly well proofed against subjective errors: but could it be that a sense of time slowing down caused Libet’s subjects to delay slightly in reporting their decision?

Just  a thought.


David Gunkel of NIU has produced a formidable new book (via) on the question of whether machines should now be admitted to the community of moral beings.

He lets us know what his underlying attitudes are when he mentions by way of introduction that he thought of calling the book A Vindication of the Rights of Machines, in imitation of Mary Wollstonecraft. Historically Gunkel sees the context as one in which a prolonged struggle has gradually extended the recognised moral domain from being the exclusive territory of rich white men to the poor, people of colour, women and now tentatively perhaps even certain charismatic animals (I think it overstates the case a bit to claim that ancient societies excluded women, for example, from the moral realm altogether: weren’t women like Eve and Pandora blamed for moral failings, while Lucretia and Griselda were held up as fine examples of moral behaviour – admittedly of a rather grimly self-subordinating kind? But perhaps I quibble.) Given this background the eventual admission of machines to the moral community seems all but inevitable; but in fact Gunkel steps back and lowers his trumpet. His more modest aim, he says, is like Socrates simply to help people ask better questions. No-one who has read any Plato believes that Socrates didn’t have his answers ready before the inquiry started, so perhaps this is a sly acknowledgement that Gunkel too, thinks he really knows where this is all going.

For once we’re not dealing here with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophy: Gunkel may be physically in Illinois, but intellectually he is in the European Continental tradition, and what he proposes is a Derrida-influenced deconstruction. Deconstruction, as he concisely explains, is not destruction or analysis or debunking, but the removal from an issue of the construction applied heretofore.  We can start by inverting the normal understanding, but then we look for the emergence of a new way of ‘thinking otherwise’ on the topic which escapes the traditional framing. Even the crustiest of Anglo-Saxons ought to be able to live with that as a modus operandi for an enquiry.

The book falls into three sections: in the first two Gunkel addresses moral agency, questions about the morality of what we do, and then moral patiency, about the morality of what is done to us. This is a sensible and useful division. Each section proceeds largely by reportage rather than argument, with Gunkel mainly telling us what others have said, followed by summaries which are not really summaries (it would actually be very difficult to summarise the multiple, complex points of view explored) but short discussions moving the argument on. The third and final section discusses a number of proposals for ‘thinking otherwise’.

On agency, Gunkel sets out a more or less traditional view as a starting point and notes that identifying agents is tricky because of the problem of ‘other minds’: we can never be sure whether some entity is acting with deliberate intention because we can never know  the contents of another mind. He seems to me to miss a point here; the advent of the machines has actually transformed the position. It used to be possible to take it for granted that the problem of other minds was outside the scope of science, but the insights generated by AI research and our ever-increasing ability to look inside working brains with scanners mean that this is no longer the case. Science has not yet solved the problem, but the idea that we might soon be able to identify agents by objective empirical measurement no longer requires reckless optimism.

Gunkel also quotes various sources to show that actual and foreseen developments in AI are blurring the division between machine and human cognition (although we could argue that that seems to be happening more because the machines are getting better and moving into marginal territory than because of any fundamental flaws in the basic concepts).  Instrumentalism would transfer all responsibility to human beings, reducing machines to the status of tools, but against that Gunkel quotes a Heideggerian concept of machine autonomy and criticisms of inherent anthropocentrism. He gently rejects the argument of Joanna Bryson that robots should be slaves (in normal usage I think slaves have to be people, which in this discussion begs the question). He rightly describes the concept of personhood as central and points out its links with consciousness, which, as we can readily agree, throws a whole new can of worms into the mix. All in all, Gunkel reasonably concludes that we’re in some difficulty and that the discussion appears to  ‘lead into that kind of intellectual cul-de-sac or stalemate that Hegel called a “bad infinite.”’

He doesn’t give up without considering some escape routes. Deborah Johnson interestingly proposes that although computers lack the metal states required for proper agency, they have intentionality and are therefore moral players at some level. Various others offer proposals which lower the bar for moral agency in one way or another; but all of these are in some respects unsatisfactory. In the end Gunkel thinks we might do well to drop the whole mess and try an approach founded on moral patiency instead.

The question now becomes, not should we hold machines responsible for their actions, but do we have a moral duty to worry about what we do to them? Gunkel feels that this side of the question has often been overshadowed by the debate about agency, but in some ways it ought to be easier to deal with. An interesting proposition here is that of a Turing Triage Test: if a machine can talk to us for a suitable time about moral matters without our being able to distinguish it from a human being, we ought to give it moral status and presumably, not turn it off. Gunkel notes reasonable objections that such a test requires all the linguistic and general cognitive capacity of the original Turing test simply in order to converse plausibly, which is surely asking too much. Although I don’t like the idea of the test very much, I think there might be ways round these objections if we could reduce the interaction to multiple-choice button-pushing, for example.

It can be argued that animals, while lacking moral agency, have a good claim to be moral patients. They have no duties, but may have rights, to put it another way. Gunkel rightly points here to the Benthamite formulation that what matters is not whether they can think, but whether they can suffer; but he notes considerable epistemological problems (we’re up against Other Minds again). With machines the argument from suffering is harder to make because hardly anyone believes they do suffer: although they may simulate emotions and pain, it is most often agreed that in this area at least Searle was right that simulations and reality are poles apart. Moreover it’s debatable whether bringing animals into a human moral framework is an unalloyed benefit or to some extent simply the reassertion of human dominance. Nevertheless some would go still further and Gunkel considers proposals to extend ethical status to plants, land, and artefacts. Information Ethics essentially completes the extension of the ethical realm by excluding nothing at all.

This, then is one of the ways of thinking otherwise – extending the current framework to include non-human individuals of all kinds. But there are other ways: one is to extend the individual: a number of influential voices have made the case in recent years for an extended conception of consciousness, and that might be the most likely way for machines to gravitate within the moral realm – as adjuncts of a more broadly conceived humanity.

More radically, Gunkel suggests we might adopt proposals to decentre the system; instead of working with fixed Cartesian individuals we might try to grant each element in the moral system the rights and responsibilities appropriate to it at the time (I’m not sure exactly how that plays out in real situations); or we could modify and distribute our conception of agency. There is an even more radical possibility which Gunkel clearly finds attractive in the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, which makes both agency and patiency secondary and derived while ethical interactions become primary, or to put it more accurately:

The self or the ego, as Levinas describes it… becomes what it is as a by-product of an uncontrolled and incomprehensible exposure to the face of the Other that takes place prior to any formulation of the self in terms of agency.

I warned you this was going to get a bit Continental – but actually making acts define the agent rather than the other way about may not be as unpalatably radical as all that. He clearly likes Levinas’ drift, anyway, and perhaps even better Silvia Benso’s proposed ‘mash-up’ which combines Levinasian non-ethics with Heideggerian non-things (tempting but a little unfair to ask what kind of sense that presumably makes).

Actually the least appealing proposal reported by Gunkel, to me at least, is that of Anne Foerst, who would reduce personhood to a social construct which we assign or withhold: this seems dangerously close to suggesting that say, concentration camp guards can actually withdraw real moral patienthood from their victims and hence escape blame (I’m sure that’s not what she actually means).

However, on the brink of all this heady radicalism Gunkel retreats to common sense. At the beginning of the book he suggested that Descartes could be seen as ‘the bad guy’ in his reduction of animals to the status of machines and exclusion of both from the moral realm; but perhaps after all, he concludes, we are in the end obliged to imitate Descartes’ provisional approach to life, living according to the norms of our society while the philosophical issues resist final resolution. This gives the book a bit of a dying fall and cannot but seem a  bit of a cop-out.

Overall, though, the book provides a galaxy of challenging thought to which I haven’t done anything like justice and Gunkel does a fine job of lucid and concise exposition. That said, I don’t find myself in sympathy with his outlook. For Gunkel and others in his tradition the ethical question is essentially political and under our control: membership of the moral sphere is something that can be given or not given rather like the franchise. It’s not really a matter of empirical or scientific fact, which helps explain Gunkel’s willingness to use fictional examples and his relative lack of interest in what digital computers actually can and cannot do. While politics and social convention are certainly important aspects of the matter, I believe we are also talking about real, objective capacities which cannot be granted or held back by the fiat of society any more than the ability to see or speak. To put it in a way Gunkel might find more congenial: when ethnic minorities and women are granted equal moral status, it isn’t simply an arbitrary concession of power, the result of a social tug-of-war but the recognition of hard facts about the equality of human moral capacity.

Myself I should say that moral agency is very largely a matter of understanding what you are doing; an ability to allow foreseen contingencies to influence current action. This is something machines might well achieve: arguably the only reason they haven’t got it already is an understandable human reluctance to trust free-ranging computational decision-making given an observable tendency for programs to fail more disastrously and less gracefully than human minds.

Moral patienthood on the other hand is indeed partly a matter of matter of the ability to experience pain and other forms of suffering, and that is problematic for machines; but it’s also a matter of projects and wishes, and machines fall outside consideration here because they simply don’t have any. They literally don’t care, and hence they simply aren’t in the game.

That seems to leave me with machines that I should praise and blame but need not worry about harming: should be good for a robot butler anyway.