Presentations, May 29 - April 6
16 March 2023 | 4:57 pm

I have some travel and talks coming up. If you're interested and in the area, and if the hosting institution permits, please come by!

Mar 29: Claremont McKenna College, Athenaeum Lecture: Falling in Love with Machines

Mar 30: University of Washington, Seattle, brown bag discussion: Moral Reflection and Moral Behavior [probably closed to outsiders]

Mar 30: University of Washington, Seattle, brown bag discussion: The Demographics of Philosophy [probably closed to outsiders]

Mar 31: University of Puget Sound, Undergraduate Philosophy Conference keynote: Does Studying Ethics Make People More Ethical?

Apr 2 (remote): Northeastern University, Information Ethics Roundtable: Let's Hope We're Not Living in a Simulation

Apr 3: University of California, Office of the President (Oakland): Principles Governing Online Majors. [This one is definitely not public, but I welcome readers' thoughts about what University of California policy should be regarding the approval of online majors.]

Apr 5: American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division (San Francisco), Society for the Philosophy of Animal Minds: The Mind of a Garden Snail, or What Is It to Have a Mind?

Apr 5: American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division (San Francisco), Science Fiction and Philosophy Society: TBD, either Science Fiction as Philosophy or Science Fiction and Large Language Models.

Apr 6: American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division (San Francisco), Book Symposium on David Chalmers' Reality+: Let's Hope We're Not Living in a Simulation

Yes, that's nine presentations in nine days, on seven different topics. Perhaps I'm spreading myself a little thin!

Don't Create AI Systems of Disputable Moral Status (Redux)
14 March 2023 | 5:01 pm

[originally published at Daily Nous, Mar. 14, as part of a symposium on large language models, ed. Annette Zimmerman]

Engineers will likely soon be able to create AI systems whose moral status is legitimately disputable. We will then need to decide whether to treat such systems as genuinely deserving of our care and solicitude. Error in either direction could be morally catastrophic. If we underattribute moral standing, we risk unwittingly perpetrating great harms on our creations. If we overattribute moral standing, we risk sacrificing real human interests for AI systems without interests worth the sacrifice.

The solution to this dilemma is to avoid creating AI systems of disputable moral status.

Both engineers and ordinary users have begun to wonder whether the most advanced language models, such as GPT-3, LaMDA, and Bing/Sydney might be sentient or conscious, and thus deserving of rights or moral consideration. Although few experts think that any currently existing AI systems have a meaningful degree of consciousness, some theories of consciousness imply that we are close to creating conscious AI. Even if you the reader personally suspect AI consciousness won’t soon be achieved, appropriate epistemic humility requires acknowledging doubt. Consciousness science is contentious, with leading experts endorsing a wide range of theories.

Probably, then, it will soon be legitimately disputable whether the most advanced AI systems are conscious. If genuine consciousness is sufficient for moral standing, then the moral standing of those systems will also be legitimately disputable. Different criteria for moral standing might produce somewhat different theories about the boundaries of the moral gray zone, but most reasonable criteria—capacity for suffering, rationality, embeddedness in social relationships—admit of interpretations on which the gray zone is imminent.

We might adopt a conservative policy: Only change our policies and laws once there’s widespread consensus that the AI systems really do warrant care and solicitude. However, this policy is morally risky: If it turns out that AI systems have genuine moral standing before the most conservative theorists would acknowledge that they do, the likely outcome is immense harm—the moral equivalents of slavery and murder, potentially at huge scale—before law and policy catch up.

A liberal policy might therefore seem ethically safer: Change our policies and laws to protect AI systems as soon as it’s reasonable to think they might deserve such protection. But this is also risky. As soon as we grant an entity moral standing, we commit to sacrificing real human interests on its behalf. In general, we want to be able to control our machines. We want to be able to delete, update, or reformat programs, assigning them to whatever tasks best suit our purposes.

If we grant AI systems rights, we constrain our capacity to manipulate and dispose of them. If we go so far as to grant some AI systems equal rights with human beings, presumably we should give them a path to citizenship and the right to vote, with potentially transformative societal effects. If the AI systems genuinely are our moral equals, that might be morally required, even wonderful. But if liberal views of AI moral standing are mistaken, we might end up sacrificing substantial human interests for an illusion.

Intermediate policies are possible. But it would be amazing good luck if we happened upon a policy that gave the whole range of advanced AI systems exactly the moral consideration they deserve, no more and no less. Our moral policies for non-human animals, people with disabilities, and distant strangers are already confused enough, without adding a new potential source of grievous moral error.

We can avoid the underattribution/overattribution dilemma by declining to create AI systems of disputable moral status. Although this might delay our race toward ever fancier technologies, delay is appropriate if the risks of speed are serious.

In the meantime, we should also ensure that ordinary users are not confused about the moral status of their AI systems. Some degree of attachment to artificial AI “friends” is probably fine or even desirable—like a child’s attachment to a teddy bear or a gamer’s attachment to their online characters. But users know the bear and the character aren’t sentient. We will readily abandon them in an emergency.

But if a user is fooled into thinking that a non-conscious system really is capable of pleasure and pain, they risk being exploited into sacrificing too much on its behalf. Unscrupulous technology companies might even be motivated to foster such illusions, knowing that it will increase customer loyalty, engagement, and willingness to pay monthly fees.

Engineers should either create machines that plainly lack any meaningful degree of consciousness or moral status, making clear in the user interface that this is so, or they should go all the way (if ever it’s possible) to creating machines on whose moral status reasonable people can all agree. We should avoid the moral risks that the confusing middle would force upon us.



For a deeper dive into these issues, see “The Full Rights Dilemma for AI Systems of Debatable Personhood” (in draft) and “Designing AI with Rights, Consciousness, Self-Respect, and Freedom” (with Mara Garza; in Liao, ed., The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, Oxford: 2020).

See also Is it time to start considering personhood rights for AI chatbots? (with Henry Shevlin), in the Los Angeles Times (Mar 5).

[image: Dall-E 2 "robot dying in a fire"]

New Paper in Draft: Let's Hope We're Not Living in a Simulation
9 March 2023 | 7:00 pm

I'll be presenting an abbreviated version of this at the Pacific APA in April, as a commentary on David Chalmers' book Reality+.

According to the simulation hypothesis, we might be artificial intelligences living in a virtual reality.  Advocates of this hypothesis, such as Chalmers, Bostrom, and Steinhart, tend to argue that the skeptical consequences aren’t as severe as they might appear.  In Reality+, Chalmers acknowledges that although he can’t be certain that the simulation we inhabit, if we inhabit a simulation, is larger than city-sized and has a long past, simplicity considerations speak against those possibilities.  I argue, in contrast, that cost considerations might easily outweigh considerations of simplicity, favoring simulations that are catastrophically small or brief – small or brief enough that a substantial proportion of our everyday beliefs would be false or lack reference in virtue of the nonexistence of things or events whose existence we ordinarily take for granted.  More generally, we can’t justifiably have high confidence that if we live in a simulation it’s a large and stable one.  Furthermore, if we live in a simulation, we are likely at the mercy of ethically abhorrent gods, which makes our deaths and suffering morally worse than they would be if there were no such gods.  There are reasons both epistemic and axiological to hope that we aren’t living in a simulation.

Paper here.

As always, comments welcome!

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