Friday, January 6, 2012

Colin Allen on Moral Machines in the NYTimes

You can tell that we are falling behind in maintaining this blog when we fail to post that Colin Allen wrote an Opinionator column for The New York Times that was published on Christmas day. The full column titled,
The Future of Moral Machines, is available here,
and is followed by 129 quite interesting comments. In this article Colin does, what I consider to be an excellent job, in summarizing where we are in the development of Machine Ethics and in what ways it does and does not make sense to talk about moral machines.
Does this talk of artificial moral agents overreach, contributing to our own dehumanization, to the reduction of human autonomy, and to lowered barriers to warfare? If so, does it grease the slope to a horrendous, dystopian future? I am sensitive to the worries, but optimistic enough to think that this kind of techno-pessimism has, over the centuries, been oversold. Luddites have always come to seem quaint, except when they were dangerous. The challenge for philosophers and engineers alike is to figure out what should and can reasonably be done in the middle space that contains somewhat autonomous, partly ethically-sensitive machines. Some may think the exploration of this space is too dangerous to allow. Prohibitionists may succeed in some areas — robot arms control, anyone? — but they will not, I believe, be able to contain the spread of increasingly autonomous robots into homes, eldercare, and public spaces, not to mention the virtual spaces in which much software already operates without a human in the loop. We want machines that do chores and errands without our having to monitor them continuously. Retailers and banks depend on software controlling all manner of operations, from credit card purchases to inventory control, freeing humans to do other things that we don’t yet know how to construct machines to do.

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