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2019 AI Hype Countdown #7: “Robot rights” grabs the mike

If we could make intelligent and sentient AIs, wouldn’t that mean we would have to stop programming them?

In an age where high-tech totalitarianism is a genuine concern, this year, Fast Company started pushing “robot rights”:

Before we create an AI with humanlike sophistication deserving humanlike ethical consideration, we will very likely create an AI with less-than-human sophistication, deserving some less-than-human ethical consideration.

JOHN BASL & ERIC SCHWITZGEBEL, “Artificial intelligence should get the same ethical protections as animals” at FastCompany

The authors suggest that eventually we will need to give AI the same protections as animals. A “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots?”

While they admit that current AI programs are not conscious beings (“It might be a long time before we create an AI that can explain its feelings to us”), they somehow think that future AI programs might be conscious.

That’s quite a stretch.

AI programs are just that—programs. Nothing in such a program could make it conscious.

We may as well think that if we make sci-fi life-like enough, we should start worrying about Darth Vader really taking over the galaxy.

Fast Company followed up this salvo with another one:

Imagine a world where humans co-existed with beings who, like us, had minds, thoughts, feelings, self-conscious awareness, and the capacity to perform purposeful actions—but, unlike us, these beings had artificial mechanical bodies that could be switched on and off.

HUGH MCLACHLAN, “What rights will robots deserve?” at Fast Company

The author seems somewhat confused; he is very sure that we need to grapple with this topic despite being very unsure whether it is even possible to make a non-human person out of machines.

Robot rights ethicists don’t generally consider the contradiction involved in humans making intelligent and sentient non-human beings. If we were able to make intelligent and sentient AIs, wouldn’t that mean we would have to stop programming them? It would be unethical for me to force you to do my will, so wouldn’t the same thing be true with AIs? If AIs were really sentient beings, what would be the practical difference between programming an AI and brainwashing a human? In the real world, AI programs are just algorithms so there is no need to worry.

The whole thing reminds me of the constant refrain in the 1986 movie Short Circuit, “It just runs programs!”

The movie presents an alternative scenario, “Number 5 of a group of experimental robots in a lab is electrocuted, suddenly becomes intelligent, and escapes,” for comic relief. In the non-fantasy world, Number 5 really does just run programs.

Nonetheless, some researchers are working on trying to give robots feelings. They have come pretty far—in their own imagination.

Counting back: 2019 AI Hype Countdown

8: Media started doing their job! Yes, this year, there has been a reassuring trend: Media are offering more critical assessment of off-the-wall AI hype. One factor in the growing sobriety may be that, as AI technology transitions from dreams to reality, the future belongs to leaders who are pragmatic about its abilities and limitations.

9: Hype fought the law and… Autonomy had real software but the hype around Big Data had discouraged Hewlett Packard from taking a closer look. Autonomy CFO Sushovan Hussain was sentenced this year to a five year prison term and a ten million dollar fine because he was held “ultimately responsible for Autonomy’s revenues having been overinflated by $193m between 2009 and the first half of fiscal 2011.”

10: Sophia the Robot Still Gives “Interviews” In other news, few popular media ask critical questions. As a humanoid robot, Sophia certainly represents some impressive engineering. It is sad that the engineering fronts ridiculous claims about the state of AI, using partially scripted interactions as if they were real communication.


Top Ten AI hypes of 2018

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

2019 AI Hype Countdown #7: “Robot rights” grabs the mike