by Denis Larrivee
There is much bustle nowadays, circulating around nexi of philosophers, scientists, and engineers, about doing for humans and doing with humans that centers on our machine marvels and new found friends, robotic companions. Philosophers popularizing the blogs and daily press, on the one hand, typically exhaust their idea queue with notions about human creativity and its inevitable and successful trajectory, all confirmed by prior science fantasy and its fulfillment in historical parallels. By this they seem to mean a sort of value centrality that is contingent in the creative cognitive apparatus that shows us what really stands out and counts. The more reticent and reflective, that is, those among us who are the socially, or, perhaps more likely, self-designated, representatives for thinking beyond the obvious bounds, survey what otherwise seems a less gracious shore, wondering over matters like where the creative urge may be headed, what sort of value contingency may be in the process of assembly, or even exotic concerns on whether an exclusive emphasis on creative value is of real merit for humans, especially in domains that just might count more.
Reflections of the latter kind recently surfaced in a paper by Ryan Calo to the California Law Review on robots and privacy ethics. The paper’s motivation sprang from underlying concerns over the depth and breadth of robot impact on one of humankind’s jealously guarded rights, personal privacy. On what is regarded as a previously unattained scale robots will be filtering and contextualizing our private dossiers, legal commitments, and the like, reducing its unmanageable complexity, but also potentially unveiling it to tendentious and libellous sources. The burgeoning legal intrusion into the field surrounding the technology leaves the distinct impression that amongst the legal community’s membership there is an expanding perception that the sorts of interactions envisaged with humans, and their potential for transgression, is more than merely related to implementation of a novel technology. This level of ‘readiness’ as Holder, Khurana, Harrison, and Jacobs recently opined, is apparently to be invoked across a spectrum that begins to rival the range traditionally bookmarked for humans.
The widening ripples in which legal philosophy is immersing itself follows parallel and converging trends in creative technology and social science that have made a marriage of economic and labor efficiency and a coming of age of artificial, as opposed to real, intelligence. Developments in robotics since Stanford’s Shakey rover, originally purposed to make good or better on motoric skills that would leave humans free to move purposefully elsewhere, have generally trended bimodally, vertically as well as laterally, that appears to be both the source of virtue but also of vice. Though the devices may have ended assembly line tedium, upward mobility has pushed into human capacities that have a distinctly cognitive flavor. Last year’s defeat of reigning Go champion was considered a watershed for those surveying and appropriating the artificial intelligence scene, which saw fans of deep learning AI strategies swept up in the general euphoria to exploit the silico based prodigies.
The success at social clambering has not been lost on some cultures that mix the technological and the cultural with equal adaptive maneuvering. Japanese culture for instance, and for clear reasons, has acquired the moniker of the Robot Kingdom. The society’s tuneful ear to western sirens pleading on population excess has been exacerbated by ethical responsibilities peculiarly structured by the society’s general sensitivity to eastern social commitments. The resulting population void has tethered robots into service to humans, taking the devices from the domain of objects to ones increasingly propertied with subjective features. Heidegger’s need to forewarn mankind of a technology that more and more encircles us was likely meant to be as much a warning of the unthinking consequences of its evolution that have been taken up in that society as it was to identify the peril. Subanovic has pointed out that this seeming evolution also attaches itself to our being human, meaning that the particular feature of being human is taken up as ‘trace’ in the objects of our creation and defines what we make by their relationship to us. This creation itself creates more lacunae needing to be filled with that uniquely human creative force emanating laterally to a host according to the mode of its creator. Hence, apparently, the explanation for the Japanese urge to fill the void with their own images.
A troublesome aspect of such comfortable and sympatic relations arises in the inverted and antiparallel trends that makes formerly subjective humans more objectified, more like the devices they create than the personalized being that infuses a natural world with his presence. Implantable devices, clearly, merge and mark the subjective and the objective in human and machines; but this subjective loss seems to dig deeper to the meaning behind subjectivity that is superficialized in the merger.
The slide to mutual investments reflects what was, on the other hand, certainly an effortful undertaking and an intended divorce, wrenching, in another move by the noted German philosopher, of a former sympatic merger, being and form, especially human being and that vaunted anthropocentric order, that had created unnatural divisions between the subjective and the objective. Japanese efforts to fill empty assisted living institutions with subjectified robotic companions might perhaps agree with the philosopher, but their human technical creativity seems to preclude a thoughtful allegiance to his reflection. Our social companions instead, are endowed with facial expressions that respond to stimuli without a drop of silico cognition impressed with subjective presence that would make of the human gesture a meaningful interjection. Can it ever be? Somehow these companions of ours seem engaged in fraudulent commerce…..
The nadir toward which such mindless creativity appears headed might appear to justify heaping on legal scholars deserved accolades for vigilantly intruding on domains we jealously defend for their vicarious privileging of we humans. With such zealous sentinels, particularly of the enforcing kind, our perceptual excesses are sure to be properly reigned in. Under watchful legal scrutinies our death valleys may be skirted for more pacific shores. But, then, perhaps this intuition is itself no more than that, just a slightly more reflective version that that lobbed about unsuspecting human creativity. What do these scholars show us, in fact, but the rationale behind ensconcing ourselves in legal thickets that only sense what is right, without really knowing why.
On the other hand, it may be better to ask the robots. After all, they seem to have taken a lesson from us, but, unlike us, taken it to heart.
Denis Larrivee is a Visiting Scholar at the Neiswanger Bioethics Institute, Loyola University Chicago. He is also an editor for the journal EC Neurology, an International Neuroethics Society Expert, and a member of the International Association Catholic Bioethicists. His interests focus on neuroscience and neuroethics.