What a Piece of Work is Man
Posted by hyperpat on March 7, 2007
Quick, now, when was the last time you thought about establishing ethical standards for the treatment of robots? Uh, never, right? But there is a group in South Korea (!) doing just this. Now perhaps the document they are attempting to create is a little ahead of its time – after all, so far there are no robots that would meet the normal definition of either intelligence or possessive of free will, at the moment they are still nothing more than machines. And it could be quite awhile before electronics and software advance to the point where something like Asimov’s Three Laws could even attempt to be implemented. So is what this group is doing a waste of time?
Not really. Somewhere along the line, humanity will be faced with other intelligences that are not ‘human’ – whether it be AI robots, aliens, genetically enhanced versions of other terrestrial species, or even enhanced ‘super humans’. At what point do we decide to treat these types of beings of being worthy of having the same rights, privileges, and obligations of everyday people? If you have a household robot, can you order it to do whatever you want, or must you consider whether such an action would be demeaning to the robot? Would you trust it to baby-sit your child? Would you need to give it the occasional day off? Does it require a salary? When should (must) you do what the robot asks you to do?
Some of these questions have been explored in various SF stories: Heinlein’s “Jerry Was a Man” and “Gulf“, Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, Simak’s City, Connie Willis’ “Samaritan“, and Orson Scott Card’s Lovelock, amongst many others. The general points presented in just about all of these stories are:
‘Free Will’ – if an entity has the ability to take actions on its own, free of outside direction, a certain level of respect and dignity should entail to that entity (this includes things like cats and dogs).
“Intelligence Level” – when the intelligence level reaches the point of a) self-awareness b) ability to understand both rights and obligations, then that entity should be treated as ‘human’.
But even within these generally agreed upon points, there are graduations of treatment and privileges, and there is not a general consensus on precisely at what point on the intelligence continuum scale full ‘human’ status should be given. Trying to work out what standards should be applied sounds like something that needs doing now, before we are faced with real beings whose status is a gray question mark – and who could end being treated just as unfairly as the ‘African Black Man’, thought to be treatable as a slave as they were ‘sub-human’.