As a society, we have become familiar with the unfamiliar. Movies like GATTACA, I,Robot and The Matrix trilogy have had a natural appeal to Western audiences whether engaged by fear or curiosity. However, as we grow closer to realizing these concepts ideas, we must grapple with the reality of how they will come to shape our everyday lives. As scientific advances are made, we alter our bodies and make them more efficient through genetic enhancement. Simultaneously, we create robots with human-like qualities, which use “deep learning” to think and formulate creative solutions.
Some of the biggest ethical questions I will consider include how humans become more robotic through both medical advancements and daily interaction with “robots.” Equally as important is how human-like robots will integrate into our society and affect our interactions with each other. At a fundamental basis as a Western society, from where does our innate fear of this reality arise? Our obsession and fear of both genetic enhancement and artificial intelligence have had a long history, and are on the verge of singularity.
Robots are Societies’ Mirror
Often, observing interactions with human-like robots provides a lens for understanding our view of robots and their effect on society. The “Hitchbot” was created to provide companionship and knowledge to anyone who allowed it to hitchhike with them. In a CNN article, Todd Leopold explains that Hitchbot was developed as, “a social experiment intended, in part, to test human psychology when confronted with technological novelty — kind of a “Flat Stanley” that could engage with its fellow travelers” (Leopold 2015).
However, with the destruction of Hitchbot, which entirely relied on human interactions to get from place to place, there was an, “outpouring of sentiment and people expressing their feelings – thousands” (Leopold 2015). Those who loved and helped the robot felt a human-like connection to it, and responded as if mourning the death of a human. Conversely, this social experiment also gives insight into the individuals who take advantage of those they perceive as powerless. Hitchbot had no ability to defend or protect itself. Considering the future of AI, given the outcry of response to Hitchbot, should robots be given rights or the ability to defend themselves?
Robots not only provide a reflection of what our society values, but also learn from these values. One extremely interesting artificial intelligence project, Beauty.AI 2.0, pioneered the industry of robot-judged beauty pageants.
The robots used, “algorithms evaluating youthfulness, skin quality, symmetry, and appearance relative to databases of models and actors” (Lubin 2016). With this type of algorithm, the robots relied on mass amounts of data to conduct deep learning and measure the standards of beauty based on our own society. The results were startling, as most of the women and men who won were of European descent, “the robots did not like people with dark skin” (Levin 2016).
Who is responsible for this discrepancy? Is it the creator of the algorithm for the beauty contest or is it society? What is clear is that this algorithm is a reflection of societal standards of beauty, through mass data networks such as Google Search. As AI progresses, it may both provide insight into our society and develop its own “personality” around the imperfections deeply-rooted in our culture.
The Role of Robots in Human Life
Another similar example is Amazon’s new product “Amazon Echo” which is a more advanced version in the chain of Siri-like human companions. You can essentially ask “Alexa” anything. In their branding video, Amazon’s word choice mirrors societies’ confusion about robot’s roles in society: although the Echo is given a female name “Alexa,” the family still calls Alexa an it. The tag line of the video is, “With everything Echo can do, it’s really become part of the family” (Introducing Amazon Echo, 2016). The entire video, narrated by the youngest child of the family, creates an innocent, family friendly image of integrating this new gadget as a “part of the family”. If this is true, what happens when children become more and more used to asking human-like objects to complete demands immediately? The likelihood of this habit translating to the treatment of friends, family and society is a real and measureable threat. Will we become more robotic due to our interaction with human-like robots, which we essentially treat as slaves?
Do we even value human life?
When placed in the midst of a virtual reality game that gives people unrealistic abilities, it is likely to distort our perception of reality. In the CNN article, “She’s been sexually assaulted 3 times–once in virtual reality,” Jordan Belamire’s horrific experience of sexual assault in a game is explained. The issues began when, “BigBro442 had apparently caught on that she was a woman because her mic was on and her voice was streaming through to the virtual world” (O’Brien, 2016). After opening up about the incident, she received a huge Twitter backlash, “It’s not real, therefore it’s OK; this is the amoral substructure of gaming culture” (O’Brien 2016).
Reiteration: People find it acceptable to sexually assault a woman through virtual reality. This makes a very stark and terrifying leap to the new HBO show “Westwood” which allows people to enter a “theme park” and do whatever they want to human-like robots. The perpetrators of these crimes become desensitized through their enhanced ability to control robots, ability to physically act out crimes and mentality that our bodies are indestructible. Therefore, as human interaction in our society evolves through social media, games, and physical robots to become less human, individuals also treat each other as if they were not human.
Big Money & Body Modification
People are also becoming more “robotic” not just in their mentality but also in their physical capabilities. In a Forbes article describing the concept of Singularity, Greg Satell highlights an ethical dilemma, “When you start editing the code of life, where do you stop? Are we soon going to create designer babies, with predetermined eye color, intelligence and physical traits?” (Satell, 2016). Currently, there is more than ethics stopping us from genetically engineering our children, however the stakeholders in this industry are far from few.
An example of this type of body modification available today is egg freezing. Companies such as Apple and Facebook are advocating for egg preservation touting the idea that, “By offering this benefit, companies are investing in women […] and supporting them in carving out the lives they want” (Friedman, 2014). Their slogan relies on the perception that children are a burden, and that women would be able to, “carve out the lives they want” without them. These companies provide an easy out to women without a second thought at the consequences of egg freezing. The terrifying aspect of this example is the mindset of companies… They treat women as robots that can simply be modified at whim. What about extended maternity leave, engaging husbands, or creating daycare facilities within which children can be in the workplace around their mothers? Personal solutions. The first resort has been, and will be, technology as biotech companies partner with large corporations to circumvent the natural track of medicine and push agendas that can bypass the toll of time. Freezing eggs is not freezing the female body; it does not stop the aging process that also affects the womb. This also does not allow for natural selection of the most viable eggs – an innate quality that only the natural body possesses. Moreover, if it becomes the expectation for working women to freeze their eggs, this could create a gap between women who can afford to and women who cannot.
Problems with Accessibility
Creation without consequence has been the unsaid slogan of scientists and robotic engineers alike. In an NCBI comparative paper on the Christian view of genetic engineering, an interesting point was mentioned, “The availability of economic resources for medical care continues to mark a line between those who have access to therapy and those who do not, i.e. between those whose beliefs about what ought to be valued about life can be met and whose beliefs cannot be met” (Liebert 1994). Greater than our decisions as a society about the ethicality of genetic enhancements, it stands true that only those who can afford them have access. Inherently, what divides society is access to resources. By altering the human body to become more permanent, and not be afflicted by normal biological limitations, we create a societal gap of access. Similarly, Amazon Echo costs $180, something that a very small subset of the population can afford, adding to these economic divisions within the population.
Religion & The Future
Both artificial intelligence and genetic enhancement segregate society financially and morally. Our interaction with robots on a daily basis desensitizes our treatment of humans more and more like robots. An active voice in the debate over the morality of genetic enhancements also includes religious institutions.
As a Western society, where is our fear of altering the human body derived from? Considering a Christian perspective, many agree that correcting genetic defects to cure someone is morally justifiable. From “A Christian Perspective on Genetic Engineering” by James Gustafson, he explains, “Dr. Anderson’s and others’ [Christians] restraints on enhancement therapies and radical eugenics are based on a conviction that the naturally normal in a biological sense is the basis for moral norm. They can find no compelling moral justification for improving the naturally normal in most or all possible cases” (Liebert 1994). Here the argument is that, “improving the naturally normal” has “no compelling moral justification” as this would be going past the human limits as depicted by God.
To further understand how religion and Western society may shape our perception of ethical dilemmas… How do other religious institutions react to the idea of genetic modification? Taking Hinduism as a case study, the response of swamis to the topic provides another perspective, “It is this inner progress towards our inherent perfection and the Divinity within all that defines the preciousness of life, not the quality of physical existence” (Hinduism Today, 1997). Hinduism as a religion focuses on “inner progress” while the outer existence of a body, immortal or genetically modified, is not necessarily of importance. Another question to consider is the exact motive for genetic enhancement: “are we looking for a perfect, death-defying body or are we looking for soulful qualities derived from experiencing life’s joys and sufferings with wisdom and equanimity” (Hinduism Today, 1997). If extended life provides us with the ability to further reach liberation, then Hinduism may even advocate for it. However, is fear driving our impulse to search for the cure to death, or an excitement and desire for greater experience, or both? In Hinduism, aham brahmāsmi means, “I am Brahma” or “I am God” because they are one in the same, so the concept of coming closer to God through infinite life is not met with fear from a moral perspective.