Picture: robot. Bitbucket The protests of Isaac Asimov fans about the recent film I Robot don’t seem to have had much impact, I’m afraid. Asimov’s original collection of short stories aimed to provide an altogether more sophisticated and positive angle on robots, in contrast to the science fiction cliché which has them rebelling against human beings and attempting to take over the world. The film, by contrast, apparently embodies this cliché. The screenplay was originally developed from a story entirely unrelated to I Robot : only at a late stage were the title and a few other superficial elements from Asimov’s stories added to it.

As you probably know, Asimov’s robots all had three basic laws built into them:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The interplay between these laws in a variety of problematic situations generated the plots, which typically (in the short stories at least) posed a problem whose solution provided the punchline of the story.

Blandula I enjoyed the stories myself, but the laws do raise a few problems. They obviously involve a very high level of cognitive function, and it is rather difficult to imagine a robot clever enough to understand the laws properly but not too sophisticated to be rigorously bound by them: there is plenty of scope within them for rationalising almost any behaviour (“Ah, the quality of life these humans enjoy is pretty poor – I honestly think most of them would suffer less harm if they died painlessly now.”) It’s a little alarming that the laws give the robot’s own judgement of what might be harmful precedence over its duty to obey human beings. Any smokers would presumably have the cigarette torn from their lips whenever robots were about. The intention was clearly to emphasise the essentially benign and harmless nature of the robots, but the effect is actually to offer would-be murderers an opportunity (“Now, Robbie, Mr Smith needs this small lead slug injected into his brain, but he’s a bit nervy about it. Would you…?”). In fairness, these are not totally dissimilar to the problems Asimov’s stories dealt with. And after all, reducing a race’s entire ethical code to three laws is rather a challenge – even God allowed himself ten!

The wider question of robot ethics is a large and only partially explored subject. We might well ask on what terms, if any, robots enter the moral universe at all. There are two main angles to this: are they moral subjects, and if not, are they nevertheless moral objects? To be a moral subject is, if you like, to count as a person for ethical purposes: as a subject you can have rights and duties and be responsible for your actions. If were is such a thing as free will, you would probably have that, too. It seems pretty clear that ordinary machines, and unsophisticated robots which merely respond to remote control, are not moral subjects because they are merely the tools of whoever controls or uses them. This probably goes for hard-programmed robots of the old school, too. If some person or team of persons has programmed your every move, and carefully considered what action you should output for each sensory input, then you really seem to be morally equivalent to the remote-control robot: you’re just on a slightly longer lead.

Bitbucket Isn’t that a bit too sweeping? Although the aim of every programmer is to make the program behave in a specified way, there can’t be many programs of any complexity which did not at some stage spring at least a small surprise on their creators. We need not be talking about errors, either: it seems easy enough to imagine that a robot might be equipped with a structure of routines and functions which were all clearly understood on their own, but whose interaction with each other, and with the environment, was unforeseen and perhaps even unforeseeable. It’s arguable that human beings have downloaded a great deal of their standard behaviour, and even memory, into the environment around them, relying on the action-related properties or affordances of the objects they encounter to prompt appropriate action. To a man with a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail: maybe when a robot encounters a tool for the first time, it will develop behaviour which was never covered explicitly in its programming.

But we don’t have to rely on that kind of reasoning to make a case for the agency of robots, because we can also build into them elements which are not directly programmed at all. Connectionist approaches leave the robot brain to wire itself up in ways which are not only unforeseen, but often incomprehensible to direct examination. Such robots may need a carefully designed learning environment to guide them in the right directions, but after all, so do we in our early years. Alan Turing himself seems to have thought that human-level intelligence might require a robot which began with the capacities of a baby, and was gradually educated.

Blandula But does unpredictable behaviour by itself imply moral responsibility? Lunatics behave in a highly unpredictable way, and are generally judged not to be responsible for their actions on those very grounds. Surely the robot has to show some qualities of rationality to be accounted a moral subject?

Bitbucket Granted, but why shouldn’t it? All that’s required is that its actions show a coherent pattern of motivation.

Blandula Any pattern of behaviour can be interpreted as motivated by some set of motives. What matters is whether the robot understands what it’s doing and why. You’ve shown no real reason to think it can.

Bitbucket And you’ve shown no reason to suppose it can’t.

Blandula Once again we reach an impasse. Alright, well let’s consider whether a robot could be a moral object. In a way this is less demanding – most people would probably agree that animals are generally moral objects without being moral subjects. They have no duties or real responsibility for their actions, but they can suffer pain, mistreatment and other moral wrongs, which is the essence of being a moral object. The key point here is surely whether a robot really feels anything, and on the face of it that seems very unlikely. If you equipped a robot with a pain system, it would surely just be a system to make it behave ‘as if’ it felt pain – no more effective in terms of real pain than painting the word ‘ouch’ on a speech balloon.

Bitbucket Well, why do people feel pain? Because nerve impulses impinge in a certain way on processes in the brain. Sensory inputs from a robot’s body could impinge in just the same sort of way on equivalent processes in their central computer – why not? You accept that animals feel pain, not because you can prove it directly, but because animals seem to work in the same way as human beings. Why can’t that logic be applied to a robot with the right kinds of structure.

Blandula Because I know – from inside – that the pain I feel is not just a functional aspect of certain processes. It actually hurts! I’m willing to believe the same of animals that resemble me, but as the resemblance gets more distant, I believe it less: and robots are very distant indeed.

Bitbucket Well, look, the last thing I want is another qualia argument. So let me challenge your original assumption. The key point isn’t whether the robot feels anything. Suppose someone were to destroy the Mona Lisa. Wouldn’t that be a morally dreadful act, even if they were somehow legally entitled to do so? Or suppose they destroyed a wonderful and irreplaceable book? How much more dreadful to destroy the subtle mechanism and vast content of a human brain – or a similarly complex robot?

Blandula So let me get this right. You’re now arguing that paintings are moral objects?

Bitbucket Why not? Not in the same way or to the same degree as a person, but somewhere, ultimately, on the same spectrum.

Blandula That’s so mad I don’t think it deserves, as Jane Austen said, the compliment of rational opposition.

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