9 minutes | Oct 28th 2020

If a Robot Is Conscious, Is It OK to Turn It Off? The Moral Implications of Building True AIs

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man,” Data, an android crew member of the Enterprise, is to be dismantled for research purposes unless Captain Picard can argue that Data deserves the same rights as a human being. Naturally the question arises: What is the basis upon which something has rights? What gives an entity moral standing? The philosopher Peter Singer argues that creatures that can feel pain or suffer have a claim to moral standing. He argues that nonhuman animals have moral standing, since they can feel pain and suffer. Limiting it to people would be a form of speciesism, something akin to racism and sexism. Without endorsing Singer’s line of reasoning, we might wonder if it can be extended further to an android robot like Data. It would require that Data can either feel pain or suffer. And how you answer that depends on how you understand consciousness and intelligence. As real artificial intelligence technology advances toward Hollywood’s imagined versions, the question of moral standing grows more important. If AIs have moral standing, philosophers like me reason, it could follow that they have a right to life. That means you cannot simply dismantle them, and might also mean that people shouldn’t interfere with their pursuing their goals. Two Flavors of Intelligence and a Test IBM’s Deep Blue chess machine was successfully trained to beat grandmaster Gary Kasparov. But it could not do anything else. This computer had what’s called domain-specific intelligence. On the other hand, there’s the kind of intelligence that allows for the ability to do a variety of things well. It is called domain-general intelligence. It’s what lets people cook, ski, and raise children—tasks that are related, but also very different. Artificial general intelligence, AGI, is the term for machines that have domain-general intelligence. Arguably no machine has yet demonstrated that kind of intelligence. This summer, a startup called OpenAI released a new version of its Generative Pre-Training language model. GPT-3 is a natural language processing system, trained to read and write so that it can be easily understood by people. It drew immediate notice, not just because of its impressive ability to mimic stylistic flourishes and put together plausible content, but also because of how far it had come from a previous version. Despite this impressive performance, GPT-3 doesn’t actually know anything beyond how to string words together in various ways. AGI remains quite far off. Named after pioneering AI researcher Alan Turing, the Turing test helps determine when an AI is intelligent. Can a person conversing with a hidden AI tell whether it’s an AI or a human being? If he can’t, then for all practical purposes, the AI is intelligent. But this test says nothing about whether the AI might be conscious. Two Kinds of Consciousness There are two parts to consciousness. First, there’s the what-it’s-like-for-me aspect of an experience, the sensory part of consciousness. Philosophers call this phenomenal consciousness. It’s about how you experience a phenomenon, like smelling a rose or feeling pain. In contrast, there’s also access consciousness. That’s the ability to report, reason, behave, and act in a coordinated and responsive manner to stimuli based on goals. For example, when I pass the soccer ball to my friend making a play on the goal, I am responding to visual stimuli, acting from prior training, and pursuing a goal determined by the rules of the game. I make the pass automatically, without conscious deliberation, in the flow of the game. Blindsight nicely illustrates the difference between the two types of consciousness. Someone with this neurological condition might report, for example, that they cannot see anything in the left side of their visual field. But if asked to pick up a pen from an array of objects in the left side of their visual field, they can reliably do so. They cannot...