Machines for the Ethical Treatment of People

As I continue the adventure of writing my current story on Wattpad – Machines, Learning – I keep coming up across readers’ expectations that in the future machines will have had “ethics” programmed into them, somehow. The details escape us. I’ve come across nothing that shows, practically, just how these so-called ethics are going to be introduced into machines, just that it had to happen so of course it just happened. There is bound to be a learning curve, however, and so there are bound to be stories that are set during this period. Where are those stories? Why not write one?

In today’s world, it isn’t ethics that prevents a self-parking car from running over a child, it’s geometry. Any vertical object within range of the camera is enough to halt the motion of the vehicle. A self-driving car avoids a person for the same reason it avoids colliding with a fire hydrant. Is there a geometrical component to morality?

That a machine would not “willingly” harm a person will beg the question of what is meant by harm. Is it merely physical damage? What if the machine is programmed to diagnose psychological conditions. What if the person is unhappy and the program can tell that this unhappiness manifests (is it cause or effect?) by a chemical insufficiency (of, let us say, serotonin) and that by means of medication this deficiency can be addressed – is it ethical for a machine to alter the chemical balance in the human brain in order to induce a state the human would experience as “less unhappiness”? What if there are bad memories causing PTSD? Can the machine erase those memories. Would it be ethical?

Who gets to make that decision? On what grounds? How does this program work?

Who decides the value of happiness versus perhaps the important life lessons that may be learned by not being so fucking happy all the time? What kind of world will it be when no one experiences anything but the perfectly balanced chemical condition deemed optimal by the short-sighted dweebs who wrote the computer programs that were trained by that eternally optimizing data set?

The thing is, computer programs do exactly what they are programmed to do, as long as they don’t run short of resources such as RAM, Virtual Memory or CPU. If there is to be an ethical program it will be a program written by humans with the understandings those humans have about the ethics they prefer, and is not ethics another word for “opinions”?

We are experiencing a rash of such ethics this week after the Daesh bombings of nightclubs and other civilian venues in Paris. The Western World is enraged while at the same time continuously ignoring the same types of bombings of the same types of civilian venues in Beirut, in Baghdad, in other locales apparently not considered to be of the same ethical value to the Western World. Who is going to write these ethical programs? The same people who write the programs that guide the drones and missile launchers that mercilessly “bomb the shit” (to use Donald Trump’s phraseology) out of the civilians who happen to dwell in the cities currently occupied by Daesh?

Many, if not most of the problems in the human world stem from an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. We insist on believing in our fictions, sometimes to a fanatical degree, such as those guided by an insane insistence on their own interpretations of the words of their prophets, and sometimes to a much lesser degree, such as those who “believe” that in the future people will engage in hand-to-hand combat using light sticks, or that machines will obviously and easily be programmed to behave “ethically”, while in reality they can never behave other than in ways programmed by the humans who design them and all you have to do is pay the slightest attention to the world around us to realize there is no such thing as an ethics, there is only contradiction, complexity and a hell of a lot of wishful thinking in magical make-believe.

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