Computer consciousness and ethics

Nature, the prestigious international science journal, often publishes short science fiction stories in a column called “Futures.” According to Nature, “Featuring short stories from established authors and those just beginning their writing career, Futures presents an eclectic view of what may come to pass.” (see here)

As many philosophers and ethicists have recognized, eclectic views of what may come to pass can be philosophically and ethically useful. They may, for example, suggest possible future scenarios that raise difficult ethical questions – questions we ought to begin to sort through now. They may also stimulate insight into important ethical and conceptual questions at the heart of current ethical debates. Consider, for example, a story recently published by Eric Schwitzgebel and R. Scott Bakker. I won’t spoil the story (do read it here), but I want to lift an element of the plot out of context, so I need to say something about it. It involves the creation of consciousness on a computer. More specifically, it involves the generation of a whole society of interacting conscious agents – people like you or me, living in a world they experience, pursuing goals and relationships and all the rest. Continue reading

Can you be too ethical?

In a recent column in The Guardian, Andrew Brown argues that there are several ways in which one might, in a sense, be ‘too ethical’: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/27/can-you-be-too-ethical Continue reading

Emergence’s devil haunts the moral enhancer’s kingdom come

It is 2025. Society has increasingly realised the importance of breaking evolution’s chains and enhancing the human condition. Large grants are awarded for building sci-fi-like laboratories to search for and create the ultimate moral enhancer. After just a few years, humanity believes it has made one of its most major breakthroughs: a pill which will rid our morality of all its faults. Without any side-effects, it vastly increases our ability to cooperate and to think rationally on moral issues, while also enhancing our empathy and our compassion for the whole of humanity. By shifting individuals’ socio-value orientation towards cooperation, this pill will allow us to build safe, efficient and peaceful societies. It will cast a pro-social paradise on earth, the moral enhancer kingdom come.

I believe we better think twice before endeavouring ourselves into this pro-social paradise on the cheap. Not because we will lose “the X factor”, not because it will violate autonomy, and not because such a drug would cause us to exit our own species. Even if all those objections are refuted, even if the drug has no side-effects, even if each and every human being, by miracle, willingly takes the drug without any coercion whatsoever, even then, I contend we could still have trouble.

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Oxford Martin School Seminar: Robert Rogers and Paul Van Lange on Social Dilemmas

In a joint event on November 15th, Prof Robert Rogers and Prof Paul van Lange presented their scientific work related to social dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are situations in which private interests conflict with collective interests. This means that people facing a social dilemma have to decide whether to prioritise either their own short-term interests or the long-term interests of a group. Many real-life situations are social dilemmas. For example, as individuals we would (economically) benefit from using public motorways without paying taxes to maintain them, but if all acted according to their self-interest, no motorways would be built and the whole society would be worse off. In the academic literature, the three types of social dilemmas that are discussed most prominently are the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons. All three types have been modelled as experimental games, and research from different fields like psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics uses these games to tackle the question of under which conditions people are willing to cooperate with one another in social dilemmas, instead of maximising their self-interest. The ultimate goal of such research is to be able to give recommendations about how to solve social dilemmas in society.

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What Fuels the Fighting: Disagreement over Facts or Values?

In a particularly eye-catching pull quote in the November issue of The Atlantic, journalist and scholar Robert Wright claims, “The world’s gravest conflicts are not over ethical principles or disputed values but over disputed facts.”[1]

The essay, called “Why We Fight – And Can We Stop?” in the print version and “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality” in the online version, reviews new research by psychologists Joshua Greene and Paul Bloom on the biological foundations of our moral impulses. Focusing mainly on Greene’s newest book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Wright details Greene’s proposed solution to the rampant group conflict we see both domestically and internationally. Suggesting that we are evolutionarily wired to cooperate or ‘get along’ with members of groups to which we belong, Greene identifies the key cause of fighting as different groups’ “incompatible visions of what a moral society should be.”[2] And his answer is to strive for a ‘metamorality’ – a universally shared moral perspective (he suggests utilitarianism) that would create a global in-group thus facilitating cooperation.

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Electroceuticals and Mind Control

“Electroceuticals”, or therapies utilising electricity, are nothing new and range from the widely accepted defibrillator/ pace makers to the more controversial electric shock therapies like ECT sometimes employed to treat severe depression.

But a recent article in Nature argues that these are just a small, crude sample of what electroceuticals may be able to offer in the future. Universities and pharmaceutical companies are researching a wide range of therapies based around electrical stimulation, promising benefits (in the long term) as diverse as mind-controlled prosthetic limbs to a treatment for anorexia. Transcranial Electric Stimulation (TES) is delivering some promising results in depression and treatment of learning disabilities.

Not only is the research potential there, but it appears that the funding is too. Nature report that GlaxoSmithKline are funding 40 researchers to pursue research in this area, amongst other initiatives to kick start electroceutical development. And earlier this year, the US invested $110 million from 2014’s budget for the “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative”. At the same time, over in Europe, work has commenced on a 10 year, billion pound ‘Human Brain Project, bringing together 135 institutions to try to map parts of the human brain via computer simulations.

We may be starting out on the track for the “holy grail” of neuroscience: strategic control of single neuronal activity. This is, apparently, one of GSK’s goals.

With that level of control, we could finally reach the realms of science fiction: where the mind and therefore the person is under external control. Freedom might be annihilated.

We would face confronting questions over authenticity and identity. There would be alienation between the pre-existing person and their subsequent brain activity.

Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a graphic illustration of a common objection to enhancement, the erosion of freedom. TES at present does not appear to represent a major threat to freedom, but it is one of a family of technologies that could one day be used for effective mind control.

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Stress Influences Our Moral Behaviour

All of us are stressed, every now and then. Acute stress can have a profound impact on the human body and mind: both physical and psychological stressors affect the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, leading to changes in cardiovascular and neuroendocrine measures. Stress also is shown to affect cognitive functions like memory and attention. Just recently, however, research discovered that acute stress also can influence our moral behaviour.

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Why pet owners know as much as neuroscientists about animal minds

by Rebecca Roache

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There has recently been a spate of news stories about animals grieving. The Huffington Post features a video of a dog burying a dead puppy, New York Daily News reports a dog and a cat mourning the death of a dog, and a video entitled ‘Bella (dog) mourns death of Beavis (beaver)’ recently went viral. There are great contradictions in the way in which we, as a society, view the capacity of animals to experience mental states comparable to those enjoyed by humans. On the one hand, many of us love and share our lives and homes with animals (I am currently battling for space on my keyboard with our black and white cat, Wellie). On the other hand, we humans very often treat animals as nothing more than tools to serve our own ends—and even the UK, a country with relatively strict animal welfare legislation, permits animals to be subjected to conditions akin to a hell on earth in the name of scientific research, intensive farming, and pest control.

Scepticism about the capacity of animals to experience conscious mental states like suffering—let alone more complex ones like grief—is most often associated with the influence of Descartes. Optimists may have reason to hope that scientific evidence about the mental lives of animals will soon extinguish such scepticism: last year a group of eminent neuroscientists published the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which proclaims that humans are not alone in possessing consciousness (for a discussion of the Declaration, see here). Science, it seems, may hold the key to improving the way animals are treated. Continue reading

Podcast:Attention, Action, and Responsibility

On Friday 14 June, Carolyn Dicey Jennings – who is about to take up a post as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Merced — offered a fascinating Uehiro seminar (mp3) paper on whether action or responsibility require attention. Continue reading

Skin switching, implicit racial bias and moral enhancement

A recent study has shown that a person’s implicit racial bias can be reduced if she spends some time experiencing her body as dark-skinned. Psychologists in Spain used an immersive virtual reality technique to allow participants to ‘see’ themselves with a different skin colour. They measured the participants’ implicit racial bias before and after the intervention, finding that the embodiment of light-skinned individuals in a dark-skinned virtual body at least temporarily reduced their implicit bias against people who are coded as ‘out-group’ on the basis of skin colour.

Implicit racial bias is an evolved, unconscious tendency to feel more positively towards members of one’s own race (one’s ‘in-group’) than towards members of a different race (members of an ‘out-group’). The bias can be (and was in this study) measured using a version of the implicit association test, which requires participants to quickly catagorise faces (black or white) and words (positive or negative) into groups. Implicit bias is calculated from the differences in speed and accuracy between categorising (white faces, positive words) and (black faces, negative words) compared to (black faces, positive words) and (white faces, negative words). Crucially, implicit racial bias has been shown to be uncorrelated with explicit racial bias – self-reports of negative racial stereotypes. This means that even those who are not consciously averse to people from other racial groups often demonstrate a deep-seated bias against them as an evolutionary hangover. Hearteningly, the authors of the study started from the idea that encoding people by race may be a reversible by-product of human evolution used to detect coalitional alliances. What their study confirmed is that immersive virtual reality provides a powerful tool for placing people into a different race ‘coalition’ by changing their body representation and consequently reducing their implicit aversion to the racial characteristics there represented. Continue reading

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