Confucius, Socrates, and Isaac Asimov Walk Into A Bar…

Confucius, Socrates, and Isaac Asimov Walk Into A Bar… October 29, 2017

Confucius Socrates Asimov brown bag poster

I am so delighted with the poster that my talented colleague Rebecca DeGrazia created for an upcoming brown bag talk that I will be giving at Butler University together with my colleague from computer science, Ankur Gupta. We’ve begun working together on a project related to “artificial wisdom,” and this talk will represent our first public foray into one aspect of that larger project. Here’s the blurb:

“Confucius, Socrates, and Asimov Walk into a Bar– and in front of a Driverless Car”
Ankur Gupta, Computer Science
James McGrath, Religion
Wednesday, November 8

It is a well-worn setting for a joke to have three famous individuals or categories of individuals walk into a bar. But Brown Bag talks can also start this way, and in this case the three protagonists are Confucius, Socrates, and Isaac Asimov. The intention in sending them to a drinking establishment together is not entertainment, but a very serious ethical matter about technology that is in the news all the time. It is necessary, however, as a prelude to this discussion of driverless cars and ethics, that we get our three famous thinkers as drunk as we can. After we have accomplished that aim, they will inevitably stagger out of the bar (despite protestations from the robot bartender) and into the street – where they find themselves in the path of a driverless car. The main focus of this talk will be to explore the more sober thoughts attributed to these individuals, and to apply them to the question of how we might best program driverless cars so as to cope effectively with scenarios like this, in which the safety of passenger(s) could be prioritized at all costs, or avoidance of injury or death to those that get in the way could be the priority, or some balance could be struck between the two. The potential ability for an automated car to apply the ethical principles programmed into it consistently and speedily when an accident becomes imminent may make the use of driverless cars fundamentally superior, with respect to ethical reasoning, than leaving driving in the hands of humans.

There is more information about this year’s Brown Bag series on the Butler University website. This is a first run-through of a topic that I’ll be presenting on at the Popular Culture Association conference in Indianapolis in 2018.

Of related interest, let me share a video Ankur Gupta made about his research, funded by the Templeton Foundation, which led to our present project:

See also recent articles about driverless cars from the BBC and New Scientist, as well as others about accountable algorithms and related topics.


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  • John MacDonald

    I am reminded of the following quote from Star Wars Episode 2:

    Dexter Jettster: This baby belongs to them cloners. What you got here is a Kamino Saberdart.
    Obi-Wan: I wonder why it didn’t show up in the analysis archives.
    Dexter Jettster: It’s these funny little cuts on the side that give it away. Those analysis droids only focus on symbols. Huh! I should think that you Jedi would have more respect for the difference between knowledge and… heh heh heh… wisdom.
    Obi-Wan: Well if droids could think, there’d be none of us here, would there?

  • Depressingly, our own military is already using robotic technology that breaks Asimov’s three laws.

    • hopeful idiot

      Tempore belli, lex tacet.
      In time of war, the law is silent.

  • mbells

    will the talk be recorded?

  • John MacDonald

    Yay, I just found out that my recent blog post on the possible relationship between Jesus and Socrates, which I just finished editing an hour ago, is going to be a part of the next Biblical Studies Carnival! Here it is if anyone is interested: