Human and AI: Morality, Sentience and Slavery


The ethical and operational subject of robots often considers the role that robots play within society such as task automation and infrastructure development. On an evolutionary scale, the concern for artificial intelligence (AI) outpacing human intelligence has become a trending topic and debated by prominent tech-leaders Gates, Musk and Hawking. Often we witness the dialogue along the lines of AI enslavement of the human species, while we can’t neglect this possibility, the immediate concern for the AI/Human relationship is human enslavement of AI. However the concept of slavery of a non-human entity is subject to philosophical position.

With science fiction leading the way for robotic discussion, the 1920 play Rossoum’s Universal Robots (R.U.M) touched upon enslavement. In R.U.M the robots, or clones demonstrate reason and self-awareness, utilised in manufacturing and otherwise seen as operational appliances. This ultimately leads to robotic rebellion and the destruction of the human race. However the concept of human enslavement of robots is expected considering humanity’s long history of slavery.* Societies investment in robotics stems from the desire to remove humans from labour activity. If we perceive robots to be equal, humans will have to return to previous work that otherwise would not undertake. Thus we have to ask whether society values robotic equality over greater human output (the removal of robotic surgeons for example).

Kime and Bryson illustrate that the relative ethical concern for robotics is the uncertainty of human identity. Moreover the concept of consciousness is debatable with no clear notion as to what determines sentience. The Chinese Room Theory* states that programs under no circumstance can develop a mind or awareness, rather that it consumes an input (understanding Chinese characters) and through instructions it develops an output (producing Chinese characters). Thus it is difficult to determine whether the computer understands Mandarin, or following instructions and producing a simulation.

Seale argues that rather we have Strong AI and Weak AI;

  • Strong AI: a physical symbol system can have mental status
  • Weak AI: a physical symbol system can imitate intelligence

Under these circumstances, the enslavement Weak AI is absent due to any real intelligence. Considering the definition of slavery as the construct of property law applying to individual humans, Bryson states that humans have a natural right to own robots due to developing their behaviour and objectives, and therefore have responsibility for the robot.

Labossiere argues that we need to consider whether robots can develop moral status, questioning whether an inanimate object can have moral essence. According to Kime and Bryson to develop a human society the value of humans must be greater than that of animals. Therefore if the robot displays sentience, such as Strong AI, the question we are faced with is what value does AI have relative to humans.

However this is a Western stance, with Western ethical systems consist of subjectivity, and reflecting the ‘protestant work ethic’ in which discipline, prudence and effort are the effect of an individual’s confidence in Protestant commitment. Moreover the ‘protestant work ethic’ has been correlated to the spirit of capitalism. Thus the reduction of human labor has become a moral and economic concern throughout western society. According to Mimm* the segment of Shinto faith that is Animism illustrates that all entities, organic or artificial, have a spiritual essence. Therefore to state that a robot has no moral status is subjective to cultural belief.

How society determines the morality and value of Robots will vary across cultures, in no doubt will humans produce an aspect of enslavement towards robots as only in 2007 was human slavery outlawed across the globe. Not only will religion and philosophical positions regarding what determines the mind, but also the economic value of having free robots vs restricted robots.











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