Sunday, August 21, 2016

How can we know what we ought to do?

Dear readers, I would like you to consider a particular approach to the question of how we can know what we ought to do. I have used James’ reasoning about whether or not he is a good person in order to illustrate this approach. In case you are wondering, James is a figment of my imagination.

When you ask James whether he is a good person, he says he would like to think of himself as a good person, but he is not as good as he would like to be. He will tell you that he doesn’t claim to be righteous, but neither does he pursue his own pleasure without regard to other people and the norms of the society in which he lives. He says he is happy most of the time, satisfied with his life as a whole, and his conscience does not trouble him much.

James has been fairly successful in his life so far. He was moderately successful in sporting and academic pursuits. He is a friendly person and his relationships with other people are generally cordial. He loves his family. His marriage might not be blissful, but it has survived longer than the marriages of most of his friends. He has been a dependable and caring father to his children, but regrets not spending more time with them while they were young. James has pursued a successful career, which has been a source of great satisfaction to him.

James has a healthy lifestyle. He says that this is about cultivating good habits rather than following a strict diet and exercise regime. He claims that having a healthy lifestyle is just a matter of being the person he has potential to be.

This idea of being the person he has potential to be seems to motivate James’ behaviour in many other aspects of his life including management of finances and work habits. James says that most of the time he can manage himself best by reminding himself of his aspirations and exercising a gentle discipline, rather than by setting detailed rules and attempting to use willpower to comply religiously. He likes the idea of being spontaneous. Nevertheless, he says that there are some lines that he will never cross in his personal behaviour. He regards himself as personally responsible for his conduct, but is inclined to listen politely when people disapprove – at least until he decides whether or not they should be told to mind their own business.

James has always perceived himself to have potential to express many of the traditional virtues. It has been integral to that perception for him to develop and make good use of his reasoning powers and self-knowledge, and to develop his own character in ways that he values. As well as temperance, he has shown a great deal of integrity and courage in many aspects of his life. He takes pride in being honest and trustworthy.

James is also kind. He has not sought a reputation for kindness. He objects to being told that he has an obligation to help those less fortunate than himself. He explains his altruism – he would not object to my use of that term – as being in his nature. His acts of kindness come from the heart, without him expecting anything in return, except for the people he helps to be willing to help themselves to the extent that they are able. He is not a “soft touch”.

James says that becoming a good person is like playing cards well. He says that rather than bemoaning the fact that you have not been dealt a better hand, it is better to maintain good humour and focus on how best to play the cards you have been dealt. You never think of cheating and you avoid playing with people who cheat. You like to win, but you participate mainly to enjoy the social interaction. Playing the game is also a learning experience. You learn how to perceive opportunities, develop strategies, cooperate with others, and to win and lose graciously. As you learn to play well you become a better person.

You might be surprised that the line of reasoning James employs in evaluating whether he is a good person is somewhat controversial among philosophers. I have constructed his line of reasoning so that it is broadly consistent with the ethics of responsibility as espoused by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in their new book, The Perfectionist Turn.

The “perfectionist turn” referred to in the title is a turn away from the ethics of respect, which views personal ethics in terms of norms of social interaction, toward the Neo-Aristotelian, eudaimonic, naturalistic ethics of responsibility. This is called “perfectionist” because it is grounded in a developmental (teleological) process which serves to orient a person towards her or his flourishing. The perfectionism referred to has nothing to do with the psychological usage of the word in terms of striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards.

The reason why many philosophers would suggest that James is confused in his explanation of the motives for his good behaviour is because it is teleological.  James seems to be committing the error of attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is” because he has not provided a reason why he ought to be the person that he has potential to be.

From my reading of The Perfectionist Turn, I think the authors would defend James' reasoning on the grounds that he is describing his natural inclination to engage in activities that constitute the actualization of his potential or his fulfillment. Awareness of his potential for flourishing provides James with reason and motivation, and is the basis on which he determines what he ought to do.

Some critics will probably suggest that if we view individual human flourishing as our measure of goodness we have no way to judge that a person like the great Mongol warrior and emperor, Genghis Khan, was not a good person. I am not sure whether Genghis Khan believed his military conquests were helping him to achieve his potential as a human, but it seems reasonable to argue that he was deluded if that was what he thought. The authors acknowledge that through lack of awareness or misapprehension of what their good consists of humans often make the wrong decisions. They have an Afterword in the book devoted to “big morality” and the potential for some individuals to do great harm, or great good. The thrust of their argument there is that it is to the particular individual soul that one must appeal in the final analysis because “it is the nature and quality of that particular soul which will produce the actions that are to become the objects of moral concern”.

However, the authors also note that the perfectionist turn “is not a turning away from metanorms”, which were the subject of their earlier book, Norms of Liberty (2005). As I see it, there will always be some deluded egocentric leaders who will need to be prevented from impeding the flourishing of other humans. Even the activities of rational self-directed humans seeking to flourish in their own way will sometimes clash with the activities of other rational self-directed humans. As Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen still acknowledge, we need a political/legal order that answers the questions that they asked in Norms of Liberty:

how is it possible to have an ethical basis for an overall or general social/political context -a context that is open-ended or cosmopolitan - that will not require as a matter of principle, that one form of human flourishing be preferred to another? How, in other words, can the possibility that various forms of human flourishing will not be in structural conflict be achieved?” 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Will neural lace save us from the super-intelligent robots?

If neural lace sounds like something out of a science fiction novel that is probably because that is where the idea originated. A couple of months ago, however, a group of scientists published a paper about injecting an ultra-fine mesh into brains to create neural lace. The mesh has been tested on mice, which survived the implantation and are thriving. Suggested uses for neural lace include “monitoring brain activity, delivering treatment for degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, and even enhancing brain capabilities”.

In terms of economics, innovations to enhance brain capabilities seem to have many characteristics in common with other innovations. It seems reasonable to expect that, as with other successful technological advances, entrepreneurs developing the technology will initially be able to charge a high price for it. As suggested by Anders Sandberg, of the Future of Technology Institute at Oxford, the price of some brain enhancements (pills and gadgets) can be expected to fall as a result of competition, while the price of service-heavy enhancements (genetic engineering) is more likely to stay expensive. On that basis, there could be potential for the price of neural lace to fall fairly rapidly and for it to become widely used within a few decades, if it offers substantial benefits to users.

 Another reason to expect the price of neural lace to fall rapidly is that research in this area is likely to be undertaken in several different countries. It seems unlikely that the government of any one country will be able to protect the rents of entrepreneurs who develop the technology by suppressing international competition for a prolonged period.

Elon Musk’s proposal to develop neural lace to prevent humans becoming house pets of intelligent machines provides a further reason to expect neural lace to be priced for the mass market. Elon has several other highly ambitious projects on his plate, but he seems willing to add neural lace to the menu. His attitude: “Somebody’s got to do it. If somebody doesn’t do it, then I think I should do it”.

Elon Musk established OpenAI as a not-for-profit venture, so his neural lace project would presumably not be aimed at maximizing shareholder value. Perhaps Elon can attract sufficient potential investors (or donors) to be able to fund the necessary research and development.

So, why not join Elon’s fan club and help him begin work on neural lace as soon as possible to save our descendants from the robots? Michael Cook, a bioethicist, has given three good reasons to proceed cautiously:
“Take privacy. If you can hack a computer, you can hack a brain. Integrating your memories and cognitive activity with the internet allows other people to see what you are doing and thinking 24/7 — a kind of upscale parole bracelet.
Take autonomy. In our culture, this is the most cherished of our personal values. But once brains are integrated into an information network, they can be manipulated in increasingly sophisticated ways. And since technology always serves its owner, we could easily become the tools of Google or the government.
Take responsibility. There might be no crime, as the neural lace could shut down the ‘hardware’ whenever passions threaten to overwhelm social norms – as defined by the network.”

Elon Musk’s claim that humans are already cyborgs should be rejected. The fact that we, as individuals, may have a presence on social media does not mean that we have ceased to be uniquely human. Individuals can have brain implants and still be uniquely human.

Neural lace will not be worth having unless it can be developed in such a way as to enable humans to protect the privacy, autonomy and responsibility that is integral to their individual flourishing.  

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What did Australian soldiers on the Western Front write home about?

A century ago Australian soldiers were in France and Belgium fighting on the Western Front. It is worth remembering that these young men were facing a much more imminent existential threat than most tourists who visit Europe today. They would probably be inclined to brush aside our concerns about the current threat posed by terrorism, and would almost certainly be amused by alarmist reactions to the EU’s ongoing existential crisis.

This post focuses on what two of my relatives wrote about in their post cards. Readers who are looking for a more representative answer to the question might be interested in Miss Lynch’s letters.

In May 1916, Harry Bates (my father’s uncle) wrote a card to his sister-in-law, Jessie, who was the local school teacher at Dobie (a township near Ararat in Victoria, that has since ceased to exist) and the Bates family’s letter writer. Harry, shown in the photo, was 35 years old when he sent the card.

At the front of the card is a picture of the cathedral in Marseille, which looks much the same today, so I haven’t reproduced it here.

Harry’s card to Jessie was mainly about the weather. That is not surprising because Harry was a farmer, and like a lot of other farmers in Australia, had been affected by the Federation Drought (1911-16). Harry mentions that in an earlier letter Jessie had told him that the preceding harvest had been good, which is consistent with the good seasonal conditions in Victoria during 1915.

It is interesting that Harry writes of France: “This place is all the world like home”. As I watch the Tour de France, I can see why he would say that. Much of the countryside does look similar, except for the castles and the villages.

The second card was written by Frank Lowe to his cousin, Ethel Vernon, my grandmother, who lived at Crowlands (a township north-east of Ararat). I am grateful to Tom Grieves for his help in identifying Frank Lowe as the author of the card and helping me to decipher the writing. The card was probably written in the latter part of 1917 (following the battle of Messines in June 1917). Frank mentions that he “got through the Messines stunt alright”. Frank would have been 22 when he wrote the card; Ethel was 17.

Frank begins by writing about the card itself: “They have some very pretty things in this line over here.” The card is embroidered with a pocket at the front.

Much of Frank’s card is about relatives and friends who had also enlisted, including Ethel’s brother, Arthur Vernon and Bill Croft, her brother-in-law.

The card asks Ethel to convey a message to her sister, Margaret and brother-in-law, Ivan Frost: “Tell Mag and Ivan never to let their son go to the war if he ever grows up as it is a very poor sort of a game”.

Sadly, Frank’s message was not heeded. Margaret and Ivan Frost’s two eldest sons, Ted and Henry, died as prisoners of war of the Japanese at Sandakan POW camp in north Borneo in 1945.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Will the Ems flourish?

You should be interested in this question because some of your descendants might become Ems during the next century or so. 

Ems are the human-like robots that will be created by emulation of human brains. The emulation process will involve scanning an individual’s brain to record its particular cell features and connections and then building a computer model that processes signals according to those same features and connections. Ems will think, feel and behave like the humans from whom they are created. They will assume they have consciousness and free will, just as humans do.

That view of Ems is presented by Robin Hanson in his recently published book, The Age of Em.

The Age of Em is not the most difficult book I have ever tried to read, but of all the books I can claim to have actually finished reading, I have possibly had greatest difficulty finishing this one. It wasn’t the technical material in the book that put me off. Robin has explained enough of it well enough for non-technical readers like me to get the gist of the scenario being portrayed. I just became bored reading about the Ems. I persisted only because I feel that more of us (humans) should be taking an interest in the future of human-like entities.

Others also seem to have become bored reading about the Ems. In the Finale of his book Robin indicates that a “who cares” attitude was common among people who read early drafts of the book, and among those who declined to read. It would certainly have been easier for me to adopt that attitude than to finish reading the book.

In writing about the Ems, Robin Hanson has attempted to predict what is likely to happen, rather than to present a vision of what he would like to happen. He suggests that the Ems will mostly live in a few tall, hot, densely packed cities, which will seem harshly functional when viewed in physical reality, but will look spectacular and stunningly beautiful in virtual reality. Humans will live far from the Em cities, mostly enjoying a comfortable life on their Em-economy investments.

A distinguishing characteristic of the Em economy will be the ability of Ems to replicate themselves at relatively low cost. Robin suggests that there will be enough Ems willing to make copies of themselves to greatly lower wages to a level near the full cost of computer hardware needed to run Em brains. Under that Malthusian scenario, wages of most Ems will be so low that they will barely be able to afford to exist, even though they will be working hard half or more of their waking hours.

Most Ems will have office jobs, and work and play in spectacular virtual realities. Many of them will enjoy high status during their working lives because they will have mental capacities many times those of human brains. They will be slowed down after retirement, but will have the opportunity to live for as long as Em civilization persists.

Robin suggests that the Em future, as he portrays it, might look pretty good in terms of utilitarian evaluation criteria. Even with wages close to subsistence levels, Ems would have great opportunities for entertainment via virtual reality, and they would live long lives. If there are many billions or perhaps even trillions of them, as Robin suggests, utilitarian calculus would conclude that the Age of the Ems would see a big increase in total happiness relative to our world today.

That view seems to me to highlight the deficiencies of crude utilitarianism. The quality of life of the typical Em, as portrayed by Robin, strikes me as being lamentable. I predict that most humans faced with the choice of whether to live such a life, or the life of an average human, would choose to live the life of a human. Since Ems would inherit our values, I predict that most of them would also reject the life offered by their hot houses of virtual reality in favour of a more authentic life closer to nature. The choices involved are similar to those posed by Robert Nozick in his famous experience machine thought experiment (discussed previously on this blog in a post that has recently been re-published on Common Sense Ethics).

That brings me to what seems to me to be a major flaw in the scenario that Robin Hanson posits. I think he misjudges human values and preferences when he suggests that large numbers of humans and Ems would be willing to make copies of themselves under circumstances where Em wages were low and falling. As advances in technology have made it easier for humans to exert greater control over their own reproduction they have used that power to ensure their offspring have good prospects to have lives they will value. Ems might view their replication decisions differently, but I don’t see why they would choose to bring into the world large numbers of twins earning subsistence wages.

The other problem I have with Robin’s scenario is that I think he may be too pessimistic about the potential for Ems to increase their productivity by expanding their use of non-Em robots, as an alternative to replicating themselves. As Ems obtain more advanced capital to work with (including non-Em robots) their marginal productivity could be expected to rise, thus tending to raise wage rates.

This book is based on the assumption that brain emulation is likely to happen before artificial machine intelligence develops to the point where machines will achieve broad human level abilities. I don’t have the technical competence to comment on whether that is likely. Some issues relating to the latter possibility were discussed in my review of Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence. The idea that human-like robots may be created through brain emulation at some time during the next century does not fill me with joy, but life might be better for humans (and Ems) if the Ems are created before the intelligent machines, so they can prevent them from running amok.

Despite my reservations about this book, I recommend that readers should buy it in order to give Robin Hanson appropriate encouragement for his efforts in attempting to foresee the future of human-like creatures. An even better reason to buy the book is to try assess for yourself whether Robin’s base-line scenario is plausible.