The Morality of Artificial Intelligence

An important component of being human is having the liberty to pick among numerous possible actions. It is these selections we make that– integrated with environmental elements– make us each an individual. The existence of individuality is of essential importance since it is in this assortment of choices that we each make that create so many different types of us: the paradigm-shifting wizards, the mass killers, the entirely ordinary, and so on.

One issue that arises when reviewing moral AI is if that liberty, and also individuality, would be present. Perhaps latent in the term “robot” itself is the notion that restricting a personally intelligent machine such that it is incapable of behaving immorally would limit its flexibility. If a machine operated in such a way, it could not understand the gravity of making an immoral decision, and it might be difficult to set apart that machine from various other instances that (always) operate in the same manner.

Nevertheless, this is not how we might anticipate creating ethical artificial intelligence. As opposed to creating preprogrammed “ethical drones” that are unconsciously constrained from behaving immorally, we might create an AI that knew the full range of feasible choices, but always (or at a minimum, almost always) behaved ethically. The distinction here is that our machine itself would ‘want’ to behave ethically. By getting rid of whatever transformative propensities for unethical actions, we might expect our machines to “feel accurately” and also not only acknowledge the correct course of action, but to seek it willingly (as the repercussions, however delayed, would be identified to be preferred course of action).

Freedom is a necessary part of being human, as it enables specific decisions in direction, yet can we know just what it is to be good (and to make the necessary ‘good’ choices) if there is no contrasting bad? The answer is a tentative yes. If we eliminate the propensity for wickedness in AI, we do not always lose the capacity to distinguish good. As an example, I do not need to kill to know that it is bad. If wickedness has to exist in some form, then perhaps a memory is necessary as a deterrent.

It is evident that free choice on its own does not make up uniqueness, something important occurs throughout a conscious creature’s life that makes us each an individual. Maintaining this in our AI would certainly be important to ensuring the same one-of-a-kind development that results in producing both genius and the ordinary. Instances need to be unique as well as plastic: that is, every AI needs to be produced according to a general blueprint but they need to be very flexible. This would enable individuality in addition to learning and developing gradually.

Exactly how would we accomplish improving the moral behaviour of a robot? This is undoubtedly speculative, but it is possible that amplifying the function of mirror nerve cells might cause more moral behaviour. Mirror nerve cells ‘mirror’ perceived actions as neural activity in the beholder ie. when you recoil at the view of another person suffering, it is thought that your mirror nerve cells are active in a comparable unpleasant pattern as the suffer’s, perhaps producing a need to help remove their discomfort. A mirror reaction powerful enough might implant the Golden Standard of moral behaviour such that any kind suffering might create a widespread effort amongst AI to alleviate it.

However, developing a race of artificially intelligent machines is not itself ethically acceptable given that “using” them to aid our own lives does not afford them the appreciation they would be entitled to as conscious creatures. While it is at the very least in theory possible to produce AI that behaves much more ethically than us, the price to do so would be too high. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.

Reflections on the peer supervision process

About five months ago the head psychiatrist at the clinic where I work approached me about starting a peer supervision group for the Interns and Externs training there. He wanted to construct a space where they could present and discuss their cases, receive feedback from their peers and also raise any issues that they were having in the clinic. As a 5th year psychology Intern, I was the most senior training clinician (it feels as much as an oxymoron as it sounds) and we agreed that it would be my responsibility for creating this space. Our initial discussions outlined the goals of the group, that it would be voluntary, confidential, open to all the trainees, run for twelve weeks, and that each week a different clinician would present a case for discussion.

However, we were less clear when defining my role and exactly how I would create the space for this to occur. We contrasted the pros and cons of the traditional group supervisor role to the supervisor as a group facilitator. While the former provided more in the way of structure and boundaries we were concerned about it feeling like a therapy group or clinical rounds. Indeed, having established collegial and friendly relationships with the clinicians it was important to be clear that the supervision group was not a therapy group. Alternatively, the latter appeared to engender more space for open discussion but provided less structure and clarity around roles. After going back and forth over the differences, we agreed to use a facilitator model. In this model, I was responsible for bringing the group to a beginning and an end, ensuring that there was a presenter each week, and generally facilitating discussion. We also decided that I would not present my own cases and that I would generally try to allow others to answer questions so that they would not be directed at me. Having established the framework, we ended our conversation with the psychiatrist sounding the ominous and prophetic warning that he had never participated in a successful peer supervision group.

As the group started and began to meet weekly, some of the outlined aspects worked well. Notably, some members appeared to benefit from presenting cases and being given an open forum to ask questions. Furthermore, clinicians felt they could discuss issues they had in the clinic in a confidential area. However, as predicted by the psychiatrist, for the large part the group did not feel like it ever took off. Attendance was spotty from the second week onwards, robust discussions were sparse, and much of the group process seemed to go through me.

Succinctly, the group never seemed to take ownership over itself. While there are likely many reasons and contributing factors for this, reflecting back over the course of the group I am struck by how much my own role influenced the development of the group. Specifically, I believe that I failed to commit to the role of group facilitator. Instead, I moved back and forth between supervisor and facilitator and by not being consistent limited the group’s growth. In hindsight (which is not always 20/20) this is not surprising and seems to me a product of the ambiguity inherent in peer supervision groups, and my own ambivalence towards authority.

There are two important differences to peer supervision groups and other forms of groups, including regular supervision groups, therapy groups, and even support groups. The first is that in peer groups, the members either already know each other, or will at some point through their interactions come to know each other. Thus, unlike other groups, where members maintain little contact with each other outside of the group, in a peer supervision group they frequently interact outside of the group. Secondly, in other groups, the supervisor or leader is typically a more experienced clinician, whose role and position is defined, however in peer groups all members are expected to contribute equally.

The result of these differences is that the boundaries established in other groups to ensure safety are less pronounced and more ambiguous, meaning that the peer supervision group members themselves have to establish trust amongst each other. Although this may seem easy, it is as I learned actually a complicated process requiring a lot of faith and an ability to tolerate vulnerability. Without a supervisor to orientate around (more on that in a minute), group members are asked to establish trust through the act of discussing cases with their peers. This is potentially frightening, case discussions reveal aspects of us as therapists or individuals that we may not be aware of. Doing so in an ambiguous setting, with colleagues we trust, but perhaps not entirely, is daunting, difficult, and anxiety provoking for even I imagine experienced clinicians. Compounding these obstacles, is that many of the trainees were just starting to gain clinical experience and may have felt vulnerable and out of place discussing their experiences with others. It is not that the members did not explicitly trust each other, as much as the valence of the group pulled them away from easily building trust with each other.

One of the ways of lessening anxiety – or countering this valence – is for the supervisor to take an active role in running supervision, establishing boundaries regarding member interaction and a consistent structure for the group to follow each week. In doing so, individuals come to know what is expected of them less through their interactions with each other, than with the supervisor, who acts as an anchor for them to orientate around. Two of the most likely configurations are that either supervisee’s develop trust in the supervisor and it expands towards the other members, or alternatively, they develop trust in each other and perhaps later the supervisor. In either case, the supervisor’s role is defined by stability and consistency.

Notably, while trust can develop amongst all the parties, the power differential of supervisor and supervisee remains. Peer supervision offers the opportunity for a greater balance of power. Each individual can temporarily step into different roles, each taking turns at supervising, facilitating, being supervised, etc. In other words, by giving up the traditional role of supervisee (or group member) and managing the anxiety that comes with it, other interpersonal relationships are possible.

However, not only does the supervisee have to give up their role, but the supervisor as well. Indeed, while I thought that I was ready to do this, in retrospect it proved more difficult than I anticipated. In trying to establish the space for peer supervision I was also (although likely unaware of it at the time) moving away from my own basis of security. In this sense, much as I was asking the supervisee’s to handle anxiety by giving up their role, I was also asking myself to deal with anxiety of not having a clear role either. This process seemed to entail an interesting paradox whereby in order to give up authority I first had to use it.

Broadly speaking, initiating a group already entails a certain relationship between supervisor and supervisee’s (initiator and initiates), although as already described the aim of this group was to move that relationship into the background and place peer relationships in the foreground. In order to accomplish this, I originally thought it would be enough to describe the aims, goals, rules, etc. However, as described earlier, this did not work – and indeed, may have likely contributed to increased anxiety and ambiguity in the group. Looking back, I now wonder if it would have been more effective to use the authority present from initiating the group, being senior, etc to attempt and remove that authority. While I am not entirely certain of the form that this process would take what seems clear is the need to act, as an authority to communicate that there is no authority. In other words, by actively placing my trust in the group (only something the supervisor/authority can do) I would have more fully taken the role of facilitator.

Of course, this is easier said then done, particularly in a peer setting. Indeed, early in the group, the question of authority was raised and despite my wish to move away from these traditional group issues, by spreading authority around I found myself more often then not responding from a place as the supervisor. While this involved using authority it was in the form of maintaining a more conventional relationship. Instead, I wonder what it would have been like to use my authority to let it go. By constraining the extent to which I would reply (perhaps less as supervisor and more as a peer?) would that have facilitated a more effective peer group experience?

I believe that my difficulties doing this, reflects some of my own ambivalence to authority and hesitancy to fully embrace a facilitator role. Indeed, much like supervisee’s look to quell their anxiety through the supervisor, I was doing the same. Retreating into roles makes managing anxiety easier but also limits some of the opportunities for novel experiencing. In this respect, my movement between facilitator and supervisor limited the extent to which I committed to either and thus the extent to which a genuine peer interaction could develop.

For me, anxiety around authority stems from the possibility of overly constraining self and other. Accordingly, my response is to make space by either reluctantly (or inconsistently) accepting authority or alternatively challenging it. Although at times effective and important it can also be confusing and prevent roles and novelty from becoming fully developed. Instead I find it necessary to remind myself that authority much like other roles can be taken up, released, and modified, and that constraint enables action, which of course modifies constraint. Being more flexible at doing so may allow for more productive peer supervision groups!

Speculative Realism and Animal Studies Discussion

The Inhumanities and Speculative Heresy are hosting a cross-blog event on the topic of critical animal studies from the perspective of speculative realism. The first post up – on Levinas, the Other, and animals – has set the stage for what promises to be a lively, rich discussion, centered around the following question:

While speculative realism has critiqued anthropocentrism in ontology, and critical animal studies has critiqued anthropocentrism in ethics, there has yet to be many productive connections made between the two. With each offering the other important insights, the question to be asked is, what is the relation between ethics and ontology? Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives? Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real? Are nonhuman actors capable of ethical relations?

The submission/participation guidelines:

Besides the participants of the two blogs and anyone we are able to recruit to respond, we are also opening up the field for answers to anyone. All answers must be 1500-2000 words, and submissions for answers must be recieved by Friday, November 13th. Inquiries can be sent to [email protected] or to the email addresses of Scu, Greg, Craig, Ben, and Nick. I hope you are all looking forward to this event as much as we are!

I for one plan to throw my hat in the ring – on the subject of “instinct”, its epistemological history, and the way it shapes dominant scientific and philosophical conceptions of the animal.

Frankly, it’s about time critical animal studies regained some momentum and sparked some genuine interest in contemporary schools of thought. The major post-structuralist thinkers, Derrida excepting, were not too kind to this question, and the embarrassing hole they left for us desperately needs to be filled.

Pirated Theory Sites

Via Mariborcan, see Open Reflections‘ round-up of (and commentary on) the major text, philosophy, and theory sharing sites, which are:

However, as counterpoint to Janneke Adema’s echoing of John Perry Barlow‘s well-known declaration that “information wants to be free“, it should be reminded that information does not just want to be free. As Goldsmith and Wu put it in Who Controls the Internet?:

“The Internet has been celebrated for allowing open, universal communication. ‘Information wants to be free,’ John Perry Barlow famously declared. But information does not, in fact, want to be free. It wants to be labeled, organized, and filtered so it can be discovered, cross-referenced, and consumed.” (Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu. Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006: 51)

With so many texts now available online, in searchable pdf format, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could be searched, cross-referenced, tagged, etc. beforedownloading? The kind of possibilities – conceptual, and research-wise – this would open up for scholarship is mind-boggling if taken to its conclusion.

Neil Levi on Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

It’s a common accusation of the left that politics, liberal and conservative alike, becomes “aestheticized” through persistent suspensions of law anddeclarations of emergencies. But what, exactly, Neil Levi asks, in a timely, subtle paper on Carl Schmitt, is so “aesthetic” about political decisionism, a doctrine still fresh on our lips in the Obama era. The following, well-known quote from Schmitt’s Political Theology sums up this philosophy succinctly:

“The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” (PT, 15)

Richard Wolin, whose interpretation of this passage is widely shared, finds the image of politics promoted here “aesthetic” in spirit, on account of its celebration of “rupture, discontinuity, and shock, which Wolin describes as ‘aesthetic values.’

“Yet Wolin never tells us why Schmitt’s interest in exceptions, hardly unusual in the humanities and social sciences, is ‘quasi-aestheticist,’ never explains why rupture, discontinuity, and shock are especially ‘aesthetic values.’ He takes their status as such for granted and does not ever seem to find it necessary to explain what he means by the term aesthetic.” (Neil Levi, “Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic,” New German Critique 34, No. 2 (Summer 2007): 27-43: 35)

But on the other hand, perhaps there is something ‘aesthetic’ about transgression, ‘breaking through the crust’:

“Yet Wolin’s sense that there is something ‘aesthetic’ about Schmitt’s proclamations on the state of exception is understandable. The notion of the extreme has a certain fascination that one might compare to that exerted by certain transgressive works of art. To dwell on the state of exception is obviously to dwell on the more dramatic aspects of political life, on moments that are conflictual and intense. But do these considerations make an interest in the extreme situation quasi-aesthetic?” (35)

Levi indeed observes that Schmitt’s image of transgression “evokes the Russian formalists’ idea of estrangement, or ostranenie“, except that instead of “calling into question […] outmoded moral and political conventions […] Schmitt’s estrangement seems designed rather to give one a sense of the awesome sovereign power authorizing and enforcing the laws that govern everyday behavior. Shklovsky’s estrangement ruptures everyday conventions to change the status quo; Schmitt’s exception works to reinforce it” (Levi “Schmitt” 36). Is this, then, the mode of “aesthetics” critics of Schmitt have in mind when they use the term pejoratively?

It would seem not, in that the more progressive theories with which Schmitt’s is contrasted do “not assume that the aesthetic component of a political idea automatically disqualifies it from the realm of politics proper”. Benjamin’s much-touted remarks in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” are for this reason largely inapplicable here, a fact Levi conveys succinctly when he observes that Benjamin’s point was that, for some — e.g. Marinetti, — war, specifically, was “already a work of art”. “Aestheticization” was thus, for Benjamin, more a “mode of perception” than a component of political theory per se (at least in this instance), although, in a different sense entirely, Schmitt does at times define the political “as anintensity, so that any conflict or opposition, once it attains a certain degree of existential antagonism, becomes political” (Levi “Schmitt” 30), a proposition with which Benjamin would most certainly have agreed.

With the more polemical understandings of “aestheticization” out of the way, Levi then turns to Schmitt’s own views on the matter, noting in passing that, “As it happens, Schmitt takes great pains to encourage his readers not to think about politics as aesthetic. What is ultimately so interesting, even amusing, about the charge of aestheticization against Schmitt is that it targets precisely those situations that Schmitt himself thinks distinguish the political from the aesthetic” (Levi “Schmitt” 37). Schmitt in fact spends a great deal of time trying to separate the latter from the former. “The aesthetic,” Levi observes, “functions as a kind of disturbing presence that Schmitt repeatedly disavows” (Levi “Schmitt” 37).

Linking this phenomena to “contemporary diatribes against postmodern irony, especially during the soul-searching that took place in the United States for a few weeks after September 11, 2001” (39), Levi then proceeds to enumerate Schmitt’s identification of “aesthetics” with decadent European bourgeoisie “arts and entertainment”, which for Schmitt categorically functions as the fundamental obstacle to the political. Though Schmitt, and perhaps decisionism in general, does view the arts as a purely negative force, they are nonetheless seen as a powerful and inextricable force acting on, or within, political forces. For Schmitt, the dominance of an “aesthetic perception” announces and prepares political defeat.

“Schmitt sees the aesthetic as the existential negation of the political in two apparently contradictory ways. On the one hand, he suggests that the dominance of aesthetic perception is a precursor to destruction of the Lebensform, to political defeat: “Everywhere in political history the incapacity or the unwillingness to make [the] distinction [between friend and enemy] is a symptom of the political end” (The Concept of the Political, 68). For example, before the Revolution the Russian bourgeoisie romanticized the Russian peasant, he says, while “a relativistic bourgeoisie in a confused Europe searched all sorts of exotic cultures for the purpose of making them an object of its aesthetic consumption” (CP, 68). For Schmitt, romanticization and exoticization of the other are modes of aestheticization. Aesthetic consumption, he thinks, is a condition, like [page] consumption proper, with fatal consequences. It negates political perception—negates, that is, the ability to recognize a mortal threat when one sees it.” (Levi “Schmitt” 38–39)

This final point, which concludes Levi’s piece, points to the limits of the “aestheticization” hypothesis — in several ways. For one, it shows how explicitly-militant political doctrines like Schmitt’s must in the end rely upon a paradoxical relation between aesthetic forms and political disavowals thereof. The bourgeoise romanticiziation of the Russian peasant, much like, say, contemporary American exoticizations of the Middle East, was a form of enmity, not a distraction from it. Indeed, in light of the extensive work on cultural mechanisms of colonial control, represented most forcefully by Said’sOrientalism, Schmitt’s opposing of “romanticization” to “enemy” seems symptomatic of his own clearly militant (not to mention proto-Nazi) political doctrine. Levi’s paper serves to highlight this important distinction, and in the process re-focuses attention away from the aesthetic image summoned up by political discourses to the cultural role of art and aesthetics assigned bythose theories, which is something else entirely.