Racism against Robots

Economist Robin Hanson uncovers some original sin when it comes to fantasies about robots. It seems human beings really do like the idea of dominating and exploiting. But we knew that:

On Tuesday I asked my law & econ undergrads what sort of future robots (AIs computers etc.) they would want, if they could have any sort they wanted.  Most seemed to want weak vulnerable robots that would stay lower in status, e.g., short, stupid, short-lived, easily killed, and without independent values. When I asked “what if I chose to become a robot?”, they said I should lose all human privileges, and be treated like the other robots.  I winced; seems anti-robot feelings are even stronger than anti-immigrant feelings, which bodes for a stormy robot transition.

I know we have no moral obligations to machines (or do we?), but the desire this registers is telling. As Martin Buber said, we often treat human beings as objects (an “it”) rather than a person (“thou”).

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Rose

    What did you expect? We dislike Deus ex Machina, however helpful it is.

  • Rose

    What did you expect? We dislike Deus ex Machina, however helpful it is.

  • Dan Kempin

    I disclaim in advance my lack of cohesive thought on this. . .

    I find it interesting that the hypothetical exploration of ethics is becoming so far removed from concrete application. True, the analogy and the hypothetical are powerful tools to reveal underlying thoughts, but . . . this is playing with the definitions of reality. “What if I choose to become a robot?” This is not a hypothetical. It is ridiculous. What if a rock were to become a lemon? Yet it is taken up by the class and explored without hesitation.

    I’m not so much taking up the point under debate, and I realize that this is largely tongue-in-cheek, but it strikes me that the process of logic itself is changing. A machine is not a human being. It will never be a human being. That is an objective fact. Yet we must imagine what would be if that basic fact–which cannot change–were different. We then proceed from a conclusion that is precluded by reality.

    What fascinates me is the pliability of basic definition. Animals are now evaluated (by some) according to a human definition, with the full assortment of rights and dignity, while humans are not. Those who wish to be something they are not–the opposite gender, say–ARE in fact what they want to be, because they want it. We, therefore, become lords over reality. (Which ironically causes us to live a fantasy.)

    Hmmm. Maybe the Matrix was more than just a cool movie.

    Am I making any sense?

  • Dan Kempin

    I disclaim in advance my lack of cohesive thought on this. . .

    I find it interesting that the hypothetical exploration of ethics is becoming so far removed from concrete application. True, the analogy and the hypothetical are powerful tools to reveal underlying thoughts, but . . . this is playing with the definitions of reality. “What if I choose to become a robot?” This is not a hypothetical. It is ridiculous. What if a rock were to become a lemon? Yet it is taken up by the class and explored without hesitation.

    I’m not so much taking up the point under debate, and I realize that this is largely tongue-in-cheek, but it strikes me that the process of logic itself is changing. A machine is not a human being. It will never be a human being. That is an objective fact. Yet we must imagine what would be if that basic fact–which cannot change–were different. We then proceed from a conclusion that is precluded by reality.

    What fascinates me is the pliability of basic definition. Animals are now evaluated (by some) according to a human definition, with the full assortment of rights and dignity, while humans are not. Those who wish to be something they are not–the opposite gender, say–ARE in fact what they want to be, because they want it. We, therefore, become lords over reality. (Which ironically causes us to live a fantasy.)

    Hmmm. Maybe the Matrix was more than just a cool movie.

    Am I making any sense?

  • Carl Vehse

    How about the people who build machines or program them that have moral obligations (are you listening, Bill Gates?)?

    Check out what can happen in ‘Set Phasers on Stun’ and Other True Tales of Design, Technology, and Human Error.

  • Carl Vehse

    How about the people who build machines or program them that have moral obligations (are you listening, Bill Gates?)?

    Check out what can happen in ‘Set Phasers on Stun’ and Other True Tales of Design, Technology, and Human Error.

  • Mary Jack

    I dunno, I can imagine plenty of people who’d like to give up their God-given role of dominion over creation. That’s why we need scary movies about robots to make us fear their potential. Yet what an unsatisfactory outcome, even less drive for human ingenuity.

  • Mary Jack

    I dunno, I can imagine plenty of people who’d like to give up their God-given role of dominion over creation. That’s why we need scary movies about robots to make us fear their potential. Yet what an unsatisfactory outcome, even less drive for human ingenuity.

  • Joe

    This is just stupid. A robot is a machine built for a task. I owe it no more thought than I do my car. I must be a good steward of all the PROPERTY I own. End of debate. Next topic.

  • Joe

    This is just stupid. A robot is a machine built for a task. I owe it no more thought than I do my car. I must be a good steward of all the PROPERTY I own. End of debate. Next topic.

  • Tom Hering

    There is a difference between what God creates and what man creates. God breathes life into His creatures, while man surrounds his creations with a lot of hot air. So man may define robots as “living” and grant rights to them, but these rights will be entirely fictitious – without a basis in God’s Creation. Robots never have been, and never will be, creatures of God’s making.

  • Tom Hering

    There is a difference between what God creates and what man creates. God breathes life into His creatures, while man surrounds his creations with a lot of hot air. So man may define robots as “living” and grant rights to them, but these rights will be entirely fictitious – without a basis in God’s Creation. Robots never have been, and never will be, creatures of God’s making.

  • Matt C.

    I don’t think this view of robots is indicative of anything dark. It is only natural that the creator expects obedience from his creation and that he makes some things for noble uses and others for less noble.

    Of course from that angle, the question of “what if I became a robot” is utter nonsense. What exactly is “I” if it can cease to be human and begin to be a robot?

  • Matt C.

    I don’t think this view of robots is indicative of anything dark. It is only natural that the creator expects obedience from his creation and that he makes some things for noble uses and others for less noble.

    Of course from that angle, the question of “what if I became a robot” is utter nonsense. What exactly is “I” if it can cease to be human and begin to be a robot?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    It’s fairly clear to me that Hanson is a robot, or at least some kind of cyborg. Several of the larger public universities have been using these to teach undergrad courses for years now.

    He’s not really asking, “what if I chose to become a robot?”, but rather, testing their attitudes towards robots in general, and his revealing his true nature in particular. The students’ responses reveal that now is not the time to tell them the truth.

    But then, I’ve said too much. No doubt Hanson and his minions have feelers out on the ‘Net for comments such as mine.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    It’s fairly clear to me that Hanson is a robot, or at least some kind of cyborg. Several of the larger public universities have been using these to teach undergrad courses for years now.

    He’s not really asking, “what if I chose to become a robot?”, but rather, testing their attitudes towards robots in general, and his revealing his true nature in particular. The students’ responses reveal that now is not the time to tell them the truth.

    But then, I’ve said too much. No doubt Hanson and his minions have feelers out on the ‘Net for comments such as mine.

  • Dan Kempin

    lol, Todd!

  • Dan Kempin

    lol, Todd!


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