2011 May 19 Thursday
Pixar Films And Non-Human Intelligences

Writing for Discover's "Science Not Fiction" blog Kyle Munkittrick reviews films made by Pixar and finds a hidden message in Pixar films about the need to respect and accept non-human intelligences. I see this message as more likely to do us a disservice than to make our future brighter.

The new is seen as dangerous and therefore feared. Pixar’s Human as Partner films emphasize that should a non-human intelligence arise, be it a rat or a robot or a monstrous alien, there will be no welcoming with arms wide open from either side.

Victory in the battle for the rights and respect from both groups will come from an act of exemplary personhood and humaneness by those who dare to break ranks with their kind. Thus, the Human as Partner story arc ends with the capitulation of those who refused to recognize the personhood of the non-human and a huge reward coming to those who accepted the non-humans as fellow persons. In Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully discover that laughter yields far more energy than screams. In Ratatouille Anton Ego has an epiphany and gives one of my favorite speeches of all time in response to a Proustian flashback he experiences after eating Remy’s cooking. In WALL•E none less than the human race is saved from the brink of self-induced-extinction. In short, the benefits for humanity are tremendous in every case where non-human persons are treated with respect.

This is a modern technological version of the rather old Golden Rule "Do unto others.." It is an old rule as a couple of quotes from the Christian New Testament demonstrate: Luke 6:31 "Do to others as you would have them do to you." and Matthew 7:21. Also, the rule supposedly pops up in a variety of religions. But while reciprocity is great if you can get it, following the Golden Rule is no guarantee that others will reciprocate. When it comes to non-human (especially artificial) intelligences the odds of reciprocity go way down.

Personhood isn't possible without intelligence. But intelligence is only a necessary - and not a suffcient - condition for personhood. Brave humans (contra Pixar) will not make other forms of intelligence into moral agents who are motivated to respect us.

The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.

NY Times science writer Nicholas Wade (or his editor) asked "Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?" in his review of Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis. My answer: Of course. And there lies the problem with the Golden Rule extended to other species of biological life and, especially, machine intelligences. There's no guarantee that other forms of intelligence will have the instinctive desire to engage in reciprocal exchanges with us.

At least biological life forms that are social creatures will very likely have some instinct toward reciprocity. But machine intelligences could manage to escape the ethical programming that humans will try to give them. Since machine intelligences are most likely to be the non-human intelligences that we will encounter in the next 50 years we should be worried about whether we will be able to keep them friendly toward us.

By Randall Parker    2011 May 19 10:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2011 February 11 Friday
Any Animals Qualify For Personhood Status?

A view which I see as completely wrong:

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) is committed to the idea that some non-human animals meet the criteria of legal personhood and thus are deserving of specific rights and protections.

My take: That someone could say the above in all seriousness stems from impractical and romantic notions about where rights come from in the first place. Rights come from a capacity and motivation to respect rights in others. If the very concept of rights is beyond the mental capacity of beings around you to understand then these beings are not going to treat you as a rights-possessing being.

The characteristics that IEET uses to describe why animals have rights fall far short of what it takes to create a rights-protecting society.

Owing to advances in several fields, including the neurosciences, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the human species no longer can ignore the rights of non-human persons. A number of non-human animals, including the great apes, cetaceans (i.e. dolphins and whales), elephants, and parrots, exhibit characteristics and tendencies consistent with that of a person—traits like self-awareness, intentionality, creativity, symbolic communication, and many others. It is a moral and legal imperative that we now extend the protection of 'human rights' from our species to all beings with those characteristics.

Wesley J. Smith's response gets to the core of the problem I have with animal rights: We can't have rights without the capacity to recognize rights in others.

That’s just regurgitating Peter Singer’s Great Ape Project, but with greater diversity. And, of course, these so-called persons will have no responsibilities to go along with their rights, nor even, the knowledge that their moral status has been elevated.  This is solely and completely, a human issue (because we are exceptional).

Some want to believe that our rights were given to us from God. I don't know whether God (or the simulator writers for the multi-verse) exists. But even if true this does not explain what about humans enable (some of) us to create rights-recognizing societies. Others (notably Objectivists) think our capacity to reason makes a rights-protecting society possible. I think this is necessary but not sufficient. In my view a rights-based system rests upon a complex bundle of cognitive characteristics such as the instinctive desire to carry out altruistic punishment against cheaters. These cognitive characteristics are mostly a result of selective forces on our genes on top of which some humans built arguments to create rights-based societies.

Why all this matters: We will some day be able to genetically engineer smarter animals and build artificially intelligent machines. Unless we unsentimentally figure out which cognitive characteristics are needed for a rights-based society we run the risk of granting rights to intelligences that will act to undermine and destroy the institutions and customs that protect our rights.

By Randall Parker    2011 February 11 07:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (44)
2010 February 18 Thursday
Dolphins Smart Enough To Deserve Better?

Are dolphins sufficiently self-aware to deserve more ethical treatment from humans?

Emory University neuroscientist Lori Marino will speak on the anatomical basis of dolphin intelligence at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference (AAAS) in San Diego, on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 3:30 p.m.

"Many modern dolphin brains are significantly larger than our own and second in mass to the human brain when corrected for body size," Marino says.

A leading expert in the neuroanatomy of dolphins and whales, Marino will appear as part of a panel discussing these findings and their ethical and policy implications.

Some dolphin brains exhibit features correlated with complex intelligence, she says, including a large expanse of neocortical volume that is more convoluted than our own, extensive insular and cingulated regions, and highly differentiated cellular regions.

"Dolphins are sophisticated, self-aware, highly intelligent beings with individual personalities, autonomy and an inner life. They are vulnerable to tremendous suffering and psychological trauma," Marino says.

The growing industry of capturing and confining dolphins to perform in marine parks or to swim with tourists at resorts needs to be reconsidered, she says.

"Our current knowledge of dolphin brain complexity and intelligence suggests that these practices are potentially psychologically harmful to dolphins and present a misinformed picture of their natural intellectual capacities," Marino says.

Marino worked on a 2001 study that showed that dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror – a finding that indicates self-awareness similar to that seen in higher primates and elephants.

By Randall Parker    2010 February 18 11:31 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (43)
2008 April 01 Tuesday
Human-Animal Hybrid Embryos Created In Britain

How long till wolf-boy gets created?

Scientists at Newcastle University have created part-human, part-animal hybrid embryos for the first time in the UK, the BBC can reveal.

The embryos survived for up to three days and are part of medical research into a range of illnesses.

Are you upset by this?

It is only a matter of time before humans with some animal DNA get created. One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century is going to be the question of what attributes are necessary for an intelligence to be a rights-possessing being.

By Randall Parker    2008 April 01 10:30 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2006 August 13 Sunday
Should Human Animal Chimeras Be Banned?

The Scottish Council on Human Bioethics has released a report entitled Embryonic, Fetal and Post-natal Animal-Human Mixtures: An Ethical Discussion where they discuss what scientists are doing with mixing human and animal cells and the ethical issues arising from this work.

Genetic Human-Mouse Chimeric Fetuses

Recently Scientists at Stanford University injected human neuronal stem cells into mouse fetuses, creating mice whose brains were about 1% human. By dissecting the mice at various stages, the researchers were able to see how the added brain cells moved about as they multiplied and made connections with mouse cells [91]. The same scientists now want to add human brain stem cells that have the defects that cause Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and other brain ailments and study how those cells make connections. Indeed, scientists suspect that these diseases, though they manifest themselves in adulthood, begin when something goes wrong in early development.

Because of this, the Stanford team is also thinking about making chimeric mice whose brains are 100% human. However, they suggest that if the brains look as if it is taking on a distinctly human architecture - a development that could suggest a specific amount of 'humanness' - they could be killed. On the other hand, if they look as if they are organising themselves in a mouse brain architecture, they could be used for research [92,93].

In January 2005, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed the proposal to create mice with brains made nearly completely of human brain cells. The chairperson of this committee indicated, in this respect, that the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. But just in case, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice's behaviour and immediately killing any that display human-like behaviour [94].

They go on to briefly describe experiments that have been done with chimeric fetuses of human cells with sheep, monkey, and pig cells. In each case human stem cells were injected into locations in animal fetuses. They also discuss the potential to introduce human stem cells at a much earlier stage in development where the injected cells can be expected to become a larger percentage of the resulting animal's total cell count.

In 2003, Scientist at the South Korean firm Maria Biotech, were reported to have injected human embryonic stem cells labelled with a fluorescent protein into 11 mouse blastocysts which later developed. The embryos were then carried by foster mice, whereby five offspring were born with fluorescence in tissues including the heart, bones, kidney, and liver. However, the scientists terminated the project after having to address "severe protests" from the public [101].

They take a hard line against any tinkering that results in a creature that has human neurons sharing a brain with animal neurons.

  • The incorporation of human stem cells into post-blastocyst stages of non-human embryos should only take place if it can be demonstrated that they cannot contribute to the germline or brain cells of the animal.
  • The incorporation of non-human stem cells into post-blastocyst stages of human embryos should only take place if it can be demonstrated that they cannot contribute to the germline or brain cells of the human being.
  • The incorporation of human pluripotent or totipotent stem cells into a non-human blastocyst or its preliminary embryonic stages should be prohibited.
  • The incorporation of non-human pluripotent or totipotent stem cells into a human blastocyst or its preliminary embryonic stages should be prohibited.

This is an interesting position. They draw the line against mixing human neurons with non-human neurons. Perhaps they see human neurons as somehow sacred.

Okay, what is the appeal of this position? First off, it avoids the really difficult problem of defining what is a rights-possessing entity. Make sure nothing that is a mix of human and non-human mind comes into existence. Then we never have to face that question. Well, that's the hope anyway. But the hope is wrong. We will end up having to face that question anyway when someone tinkers with another species and just changes its DNA to make it smarter without using human DNA to create the smarter result. We will face the question when people start creating human offspring that have modifications of genes that govern cognitive ability. We will face that question when artificial intelligences are created.

The need to create a scientific definition of humans will be forced upon us by technological advances. That definition (or, rather, definitions since consensus will not be possible) will threaten religious definitions, ideological definitions, and other definitions based upon fantasies of what we wish to believe is nature.

But before we start modifying human nature or creating other intelligent lifeforms we already increasingly face another threat to how we view ourselves: Genetic and neurobiological advances will gradually undermine many beliefs about the nature of humans. Worse, the challenge of what should be considered human will (I predict) be challenged when looking just at genetic variations which exist in humans.

For example, more genetic variations that contribute to violence and criminality will be found. Probably some genetic variations will be found that contribute to psychopathy. Should we consider amoral totally unempathetic minds as humans? We'd be unwise to grant rights to an artificial intelligence with those qualities. Should our standard for rights possession be lower for humans than for AIs or animals uplifted by genetic engineering that raises their intelligence?

Delaying the day we have to face the question of whether chimeras possess human rights or human souls might make sense even if creation of chimeras is eventually allowed some day. The longer we delay the better will be our scientific understanding of human nature and of the cognitive qualities needed to maintain a rights-based society.

A second reason for keeping humans unmixed with other species is that doing so preserves the ability of many humans to feel that humans are special and apart from the rest of life. Many people see humans as special due to having souls which other species do not have. But if a human-chimp chimera could be created the question arises: Would it have a soul? Suppose that a creature looked perfectly human but somehow had 10% of its brain cells from another species. Would it have a soul? It'd have more human brain cells than, say, an Alzheimer's patient. So would it have a soul?

A third reason to oppose creation of human-animal chimeras is to avoid suffering in the resulting creatures. But suppose scientists include a small enough percentage of human cells that the resulting animal thinks and acts like an animal of its type. Or suppose the human cells were genetically modified to be more compatible with, say, neurons in a mouse's brain and that the mouse brain was kept as small as a normal mouse's brain. Potentially that'd avoid the problem of creatures which are not shaped in a way that causes them suffering. Also, the mouse would not possess any higher level of awareness than a normal mouse has.

It seems to me that the biggest benefit of totally banning the creation of human-animal chimeras is that it avoids our feeling confused about how we should treat the results. But we are going to have to wrestle with all the ethical questions that chimeric creatures present us with whether or not we create chimeric creatures. Also, even if the creation of such creatures is banned inevitably people will create them illegally. So we'll still have to decide at some point what criteria to use when weighing what rights to grant them or whether to destroy them upon discovery.

Before taking the line that we should just ban anything that seems yucky or weird consider the potential benefits from letting scientists create chimeras. For example, scientists can study human diseases by putting human cells with human genetic disease into animals. Also, use of animals to grow organs for transplant might work if the organs were grown from the fetal stage using human stem cells injected into the fetus.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 13 11:00 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (23)
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