John and I have only had one serious disagreement since we met, and I suspect it is an issue we will still be arguing when we’re rocking on our front porch, old and toothless. We each stand firmly footed in science or sentimentality on the opposite sides of a worry and hope that is rooted deeply in modern thought. The issue?
You understand the problem. John is the hopeful who sees robots and the melding of human and technology as the brilliant wave of the future. I see them as the future overlords, created by a stunning combination of human arrogance and cruelty. It’s an old argument, but we’re always finding new facets to explore and disagree on.
The latest trigger of the argument came in the form of a new feature in the game John is beta-testing. You can tame the animals of the game and turn them to do your bidding. An interesting feature, from a gaming perspective, but consider this piece of dialogue:
John: “I just killed Fluffy!”
John: “My pet pig, in the game. I named him Fluffy. I just killed him.”
Me: Horrified stare.
Me: “You just convinced that little pig that you were his friend, gave him a silly pet name, made him lovingly devoted to you, then rewarded his trust by turning him into leather.”
John: “It’s just an animated game pig. I’ll get another one and name him Fluffy 2.”
Later, John: “I just killed Fluffy 2!”
Me: “What is wrong with you?”
John: “Well, I told him to attack me, and I couldn’t make him stop.”
Me: Horrified stare, again.
John: “I’m beta-testing. It’s what we’re supposed to do! We’re supposed to try out all the features of the game and make them do strange things to see where the bugs are.”
Later, John: “I wonder if I could tame a pig and a weasel at the same time.”
Me: “What, so you could take them and turn them into your own personal army?”
John: “Ha! A plague of weasels descends upon the town.”
Me: “People like you will be making and testing AI, and you seriously think we can have robots without a deadly revolution?”
Because here’s the problem: killing the little pigs that run around in a video game is one thing. Whatever. On a scale of ethically grey areas, it’s not that bad. But imagine that the pig was real AI. It’s not like other players who deliberately enter the world with the understanding they might be ganked. Self-aware AI characters, pigs or human, would probably be very appealing to the game makers and players for bringing an additional challenge to the game, but what would they be, if not slaves for our entertainment? Or coerced armies?
Maybe AI and/or robots could add a fantastic new dimension to life, but as long as people with John’s type of curiosity are making them and being backed by military/industrial funding…we’re all gonna die.
John will tell me I’m not giving his argument fair representation, which is true, so you may see his rebuttal later. Fortunately, this is an argument we have light-heartedly. I can’t take it too seriously, because it’s only relevant if you accept that intelligence can be stripped down to calculation.
But that’s an argument to save for our toothless, rocking chair days when one of us will be able to say, “I told you so…”