One of the benefits of being affiliated with Rutgers University, if only part-time, is keeping a finger on the pulse of the future. No, I’m not on any admissions committees. Rather, this week, now available on YouTube, the university is advertising its robotics ethics program, geared mainly toward high school students. Perhaps reading Robopocalypse is not the best introduction to robot ethics, but it does raise a very serious issue—how do robots and ethics fit together? We haven’t even figured out human ethics yet! One of the principal concepts behind any ethical system is intention: did a person (or rarely, a higher animal) mean to do what it did? If an action has brought harm to a person, we need to know if it was intentional or not. In a world where artificial intelligence is just around the corner, we need to sort out how this will apply to mechanical minds.
Perhaps—if human minds are just soft computers—when robot minds are created they too will have a god concept. Neurologists and philosophers and theologians debate when the human concept of god originated and no consensus has emerged. It may be a by-product of “mind,” however we define that. If computers are eventually assigned true mind, will they also believe in God? According to Wilson’s fictional construction in Robopocalypse, Archon thinks “he” is “god.” Humans tend to project God out there somewhere. None of us has the power ascribed to God, and even if individuals claim otherwise, we don’t actually believe we are divine. Would a computer know?
Pressing just a little further on this, human ethics are always subject to corruption. It is clearly seen, almost advertised even, in politics. Not only do we find government leaders with their trousers down or with dirty money in their hands, we also find the same in ecclesiastical settings. Would robots become corrupt? Wilson calls the corrupting agent a virus, a real enough phenomenon. According to the Rutgers video, within two generations every home will have robots in it. The question is: what will their ethics be? I probably won’t be around to see it happen, but I do have a profound hope. My hope is that whoever fabricates robot ethics will be well aware of the failure our governments and religious institutions have made of the attempt.