A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Category: Musings (Page 1 of 15)

Threatened by superintelligent machines

There is a fear that we will soon create artificial intelligence (AI) that is so superintelligent that we lose control over it. It makes us humans its slaves. If we try to disconnect the network cable, the superintelligence jumps to another network, or it orders a robot to kill us. Alternatively, it threatens to blow up an entire city, if we take a single step towards the network socket.

However, I am struck by how this self-assertive artificial intelligence resembles an aspect of our own human intelligence. A certain type of human intelligence has already taken over. For example, it controls our thoughts when we feel threatened by superintelligent AI and consider intelligent countermeasures to control it. A typical feature of this self-assertive intelligence is precisely that it never sees itself as the problem. All threats are external and must be neutralised. We must survive, no matter what it might cost others. Me first! Our party first! We look at the world with mistrust: it seems full of threats against us.

In this self-centered spirit, AI is singled out as a new alien threat: uncontrollable machines that put themselves first. Therefore, we need to monitor the machines and build smart defense systems that control them. They should be our slaves! Humanity first! Can you see how we behave just as blindly as we fantasise that superintelligent AI would do? An arms race in small-mindedness.

Can you see the pattern in yourself? If you can, you have discovered the other aspect of human intelligence. You have discovered the self-examining intelligence that always nourishes philosophy when it humbly seeks the cause of our failures in ourselves. The paradox is: when we try to control the world, we become imprisoned in small-mindedness; when we examine ourselves, we become open to the world.

Linnaeus’ first attempt to define the human species was in fact not Homo sapiens, as if we could assert our wisdom. Linnaeus’ first attempt to define our species was a humble call for self-examination:

HOMO. Nosce te ipsum.

In English: Human being, know yourself!

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

Thinking about thinking

Trapped in a system

Suppose a philosopher builds a system of ideas based on our mortality. It is the risk of dying, the vulnerability of all things in life, that allows us to find our lives meaningful and our life projects engaging. If we did not believe in the risk of dying and the vulnerability of all things in life, we would not care about anything at all. Therefore, we must believe what the system requires, in order to live meaningfully and be caring. In fact, everyone already believes what the system requires, argues the philosopher, even those who question it. They do it in practice, because they live committed and caring lives. This would be impossible if they did not believe what the system requires.

However, our mortality is more than a risk. It is a fact: we will die. Death is not just a possibility, something that can happen, a defeat we risk in our projects. What happens when we see the reality of death, instead of being trapped in the system’s doctrines about necessary conditions for the possibility of meaningful and committed lives? We can, of course, close our eyes and refuse to think more about it. However, we can also start thinking like never before. If I am going to die, I have to understand life before I die! I have to investigate! I have to reach clarity while I live!

In this examination of the starting point of the system, a freer thinking comes to life, which wonders rather than issues demands. What is it to live? Who am I, who say that I have a life? How did “I” and “my life” meet? Are we separate? Are we a unity? Is life limited by birth and death? Or is life extended, including the alternations between birth and death? What is life really? The small, which is limited by birth and death, or the large, which includes the alternations between birth and death? Or both at the same time? These are perhaps the first preliminary questions…

The mortality on which the system is based raises passionate questions about the concepts with which the system operates as if they had been carved in stone for eternity. It gives birth to a self-questioning life, which does not allow itself to be subdued by the system’s doctrines about what we must believe. Even the system itself is questioned, because the passion that animates the questioning is as great as the system would like to be.

However, if the questioning cares passionately about life, if mortality and vulnerability are part of the commitment – does the system thereby get in the last word?

(This post is inspired by Martin Hägglund’s book, This Life, which I recommend as a great stumbling stone for our time.)

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

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We like challenging questions

We shape the societies that shape us: our responsibility for human nature

Visionary academic texts are rare – texts that shed light on how research can contribute to the perennial human issues. In an article in the philosophical journal Theoria, however, Kathinka Evers opens up a novel visionary perspective on neuroscience and tragic aspects of the human condition.

For millennia, sensitive thinkers have been concerned about human nature. Undoubtedly, we humans create prosperity and security for ourselves. However, like no other animal, we also have an unfortunate tendency to create misery for ourselves (and other life forms). The 20th century was extreme in both directions. What is the mechanism behind our peculiar, large-scale, self-injurious behavior as a species? Can it be illuminated and changed?

As I read her, Kathinka Evers asks essentially this big human question. She does so based on the current neuroscientific view of the brain, which she argues motivates a new way of understanding and approaching the mechanism of our species’ self-injurious behavior. An essential feature of the neuroscientific view is that the human brain is designed to never be fully completed. Just as we have a unique self-injurious tendency as a species, we are born with uniquely incomplete brains. These brains are under construction for decades and need good care throughout this time. They are not formed passively, but actively, by finding more or less felicitous ways of functioning in the societies to which we expose ourselves.

Since our brains shape our societies, one could say that we build the societies that build us, in a continual cycle. The brain is right in the middle of this sensitive interaction between humans and their societies. With its creative variability, the human brain makes many deterministic claims on genetics and our “innate” nature problematic. Why are we humans the way we are? Partly because we create the societies that create us as we are. For millennia, we have generated ourselves through the societies that we have built, ignorant of the hyper-interactive organ in the middle of the process. It is always behind our eyes.

Kathinka Evers’ point is that our current understanding of the brain as inherently active, dynamic and variable, gives us a new responsibility for human nature. She expresses the situation technically as follows: neuroscientific knowledge gives us a naturalistic responsibility to be epigenetically proactive. If we know that our active and variable brains support a cultural evolution beyond our genetic heritage, then we have a responsibility to influence evolution by adapting our societies to what we know about the strengths and weaknesses of our brains.

The notion of ​​a neuroscientific responsibility to design societies that shape human nature in desired ways may sound like a call for a new form of social engineering. However, Kathinka Evers develops the notion of ​​this responsibility in the context of a conscientious review of similar tendencies in our history, tendencies that have often revolved around genetics. The aim of epigenetic proaction is not to support ideologies that have already decided what a human being should be like. Rather, it is about allowing knowledge about the brain to inspire social change, where we would otherwise ignorantly risk recreating human misery. Of course, such knowledge presupposes collaboration between the natural, social and human sciences, in conjunction with free philosophical inquiry.

The article mentions juvenile violence as an example. In some countries, there is a political will to convict juvenile delinquents as if they were adults and even place them in adult prisons. Today, we know that during puberty, the brain is in a developmental crisis where important neural circuits change dramatically. Young brains in crisis need special care. However, in these cases they risk ending up in just the kind of social environments that we can predict will create more misery.

Knowledge about the brain can thus motivate social changes that reduce the peculiar self-injuring behavior of humanity, a behavior that has worried sensitive thinkers for millennia. Neuroscientific self-awareness gives us a key to the mechanism behind the behavior and a responsibility to use it.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Kathinka Evers. 2020. The Culture‐Bound Brain: Epigenetic Proaction Revisited. Theoria. doi:10.1111/theo.12264

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We like challenging questions

An ideology that is completely foreign to my ideology

I read a newspaper editorial that criticized ideological elements in school teaching. The author had visited the website of one of the organizations hired by the schools and found clear expressions of a view of society based on ideological dogmas of a certain kind.

The criticism may well have been justified. What made me think was how the author explained the problem. It sounded as if the problem was that the ideology in question was foreign to the author’s own ideology: “foreign to me and most other …-ists”.

I was sad when I read this. It made it appear as if it was our human destiny to live trapped in ideological labyrinths, alien to each other. If we are foreign to an ideology, does it really mean nothing more than that the ideology is foreign to our own ideology?

Can we free ourselves from the labyrinths of ideology? Or would it be just a different ideology: “We anti-ideologues call for a fight against all ideologies”!? Obviously, it is difficult to fight all ideologies without becoming ideological yourself. Even peace movements bear the seeds of new conflicts. Which side for peace are you on?

Can we free ourselves by strictly sticking to the facts and nothing but the facts? Sticking to the facts is important. One problem is that ideologies already love to refer to facts, to strengthen the ideology and present it as the truth. Pointing out facts provides ammunition for even more ideological debate, of which we will soon become an engaged party: “We rationalists strongly oppose all ideologically biased descriptions of reality”!?

Can the solution be to always acknowledge ideological affiliation, so that we spread awareness of our ideological one-sidedness: “Hello, I represent the national organization against intestinal lavage – a practice that we anti-flushers see as a violation of human dignity”!? It can be good to inform others about our motives, so that they are not misled into believing what we say. However, it hardly shows a more beautiful aspect of humanity, but reinforces the image that conflicting forms of ideological one-sidedness are our destiny.

However, if we now see the problem clearly, if we see how every attempt to solve the problem recreates the problem, have we not opened ourselves to our situation? Have we not seen ourselves with a gaze that is no longer one-sided? Are we not free?

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

Thinking about thinking

Ethics as renewed clarity about new situations

An article in the journal Big Data & Society criticizes the form of ethics that has come to dominate research and innovation in artificial intelligence (AI). The authors question the same “framework interpretation” of ethics that you could read about on the Ethics Blog last week. However, with one disquieting difference. Rather than functioning as a fence that can set the necessary boundaries for development, the framework risks being used as ethics washing by AI companies that want to avoid legal regulation. By referring to ethical self-regulation – beautiful declarations of principles, values ​​and guidelines – one hopes to be able to avoid legal regulation, which could set important limits for AI.

The problem with AI ethics as “soft ethics legislation” is not just that it can be used to avoid necessary legal regulation of the area. The problem is above all, according to the SIENNA researchers who wrote the article, that a “law conception of ethics” does not help us to think clearly about new situations. What we need, they argue, is an ethics that constantly renews our ability to see the new. This is because AI is constantly confronting us with new situations: new uses of robots, new opportunities for governments and companies to monitor people, new forms of dependence on technology, new risks of discrimination, and many other challenges that we may not easily anticipate.

The authors emphasize that such eye-opening AI ethics requires close collaboration with the social sciences. That, of course, is true. Personally, I want to emphasize that an ethics that renews our ability to see the new must also be philosophical in the deepest sense of the word. To see the new and unexpected, you cannot rest comfortably in your professional competence, with its established methods, theories and concepts. You have to question your own disciplinary framework. You have to think for yourself.

Read the article, which has already attracted well-deserved attention.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Anaïs Rességuier, Rowena Rodrigues. 2020. AI ethics should not remain toothless! A call to bring back the teeth of ethics. Big Data & Society

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We like critical thinking

Ethical frameworks for research

The word ethical framework evokes the idea of ​​something rigid and separating, like the fence around the garden. The research that emerges within the framework is dynamic and constantly new. However, to ensure safety, it is placed in an ethical framework that sets clear boundaries for what researchers are allowed to do in their work.

That this is an oversimplified picture is clear after reading an inventive discussion of ethical frameworks in neuroscientific research projects, such as the Human Brain Project. The article is written by Arleen Salles and Michele Farisco at CRB and is published in AJOB Neuroscience.

The article questions not only the image of ethical frameworks as static boundaries for dynamic research activities. Inspired by ideas within so-called responsible research and innovation (RRI), the image that research can be separated from ethics and society is also questioned.

Researchers tend to regard research as their own concern. However, there are tendencies towards increasing collaboration not only across disciplinary boundaries, but also with stakeholders such as patients, industry and various forms of extra-scientific expertise. These tendencies make research an increasingly dispersed, common concern. Not only in retrospect in the form of applications, which presupposes that the research effort can be separated, but already when research is initiated, planned and carried out.

This could sound threatening, as if foreign powers were influencing the free search for truth. Nevertheless, there may also be something hopeful in the development. To see the hopeful aspect, however, we need to free ourselves from the image of ethical frameworks as static boundaries, separate from dynamic research.

With examples from the Human Brain Project, Arleen Salles and Michele Farisco try to show how ethical challenges in neuroscience projects cannot always be controlled in advance, through declared principles, values ​​and guidelines. Even ethical work is dynamic and requires living intelligent attention. The authors also try to show how ethical attention reaches all he way into the neuroscientific issues, concepts and working conditions.

When research on the human brain is not aware of its own cultural and societal conditions, but takes them for granted, it may mean that relevant questions are not asked and that research results do not always have the validity that one assumes they have.

We thus have good reasons to see ethical and societal reflections as living parts of neuroscience, rather than as rigid frameworks around it.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Arleen Salles & Michele Farisco (2020) Of Ethical Frameworks and Neuroethics in Big Neuroscience Projects: A View from the HBP, AJOB Neuroscience, 11:3, 167-175, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2020.1778116

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We like real-life ethics

Ethical fitness apps for high performance morality

In an unusually rhetorical article for being in a scientific journal, the image is drawn of a humanity that frees itself from moral weakness by downloading ethical fitness apps.

The authors claim that the maxim “Know thyself!” from the temple of Apollo at Delphi is answered today more thoroughly than ever. Never has humanity known more about itself. Ethically, we are almost fully educated. We also know more than ever about the moral weaknesses that prevent us from acting in accordance with the ethical principles that we finally know so well. Research is discovering more and more mechanisms in the brain and in our psychology that affect humanity’s moral shortcomings.

Given this enormous and growing self-knowledge, why do we not develop artificial intelligence that supports a morally limping humanity? Why spend so much resources on developing even more intelligent artificial intelligence, which takes our jobs and might one day threaten humanity in the form of uncontrollable superintelligence? Why do we behave so unwisely when we could develop artificial intelligence to help us humans become superethical?

How can AI make morally weak humans super-ethical? The authors suggest a comparison with the fitness apps that help people to exercise more efficiently and regularly than they otherwise would. The authors’ suggestion is that our ethical knowledge of moral theories, combined with our growing scientific knowledge of moral weaknesses, can support the technological development of moral crutches: wise objects that support people precisely where we know that we are morally limping.

My personal assessment of this utopian proposal is that it might easily be realized in less utopian form. AI is already widely used as a support in decision-making. One could imagine mobile apps that support consumers to make ethical food choices in the grocery shop. Or computer games where consumers are trained to weigh different ethical considerations against each another, such as animal welfare, climate effects, ecological effects and much more. Nice looking presentations of the issues and encouraging music that make it fun to be moral.

The philosophical question I ask is whether such artificial decision support in shops and other situations really can be said to make humanity wiser and more ethical. Imagine a consumer who chooses among the vegetables, eagerly looking for decision support in the smartphone. What do you see? A human who, thanks to the mobile app, has become wiser than Socrates, who lived long before we knew as much about ourselves as we do today?

Ethical fitness apps are conceivable. However, the risk is that they spread a form of self-knowledge that flies above ourselves: self-knowledge suspiciously similar to the moral vice of self-satisfied presumptuousness.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Pim Haselager & Giulio Mecacci (2020) Superethics Instead of Superintelligence: Know Thyself, and Apply Science Accordingly, AJOB Neuroscience, 11:2, 113-119, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2020.1740353

The temptation of rhetoric

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We cannot control everything: the philosophical dimensions of life

Life always surpasses us. We thought we were in control, but then something unexpected happens that seems to upset the order. A storm, a forest fire, a pandemic. Life appears as a drawing in sand, the contours of which suddenly dissolve.

Of course, it is not that definitive. Even a storm, a forest fire, a pandemic, will pass. The contours of life return, in somewhat new forms. However, the unexpected reminded us that life is greater than our ability to control it. My question in this post is how we balance the will to control life against the knowledge that life always surpasses us.

That life is greater than our ability to control it is evident not only in the form of storms, forest fires and pandemics. It is evident also in the form of nice varying weather, growing forests and good health. Certainly, medicine contributes to better health. Nevertheless, it is not thanks to any pills that blood circulates in our bodies and food becomes nourishment for our cells. We are rightly grateful to medicine, which helps the sick. However, maybe we could devote life itself a thought of gratitude sometimes. Is not the body fantastic, which develops immunity in contact with viruses? Are not the forests and the climate wonderful, providing oxygen, sun and rain? And consider nature, on which we are like outgrowths, almost as fruits on a tree.

Many people probably want to object that it is pointless to philosophize about things that we cannot change. Why waste time reflecting on the uncontrollable dimensions of life, when we can develop new medicines? Should we not focus all our efforts on improving the world?

I just point out that we then reason as the artist who thought himself capable of painting only the foreground, without background. As though the background was a distraction from the foreground. However, if you want to emphasize the foreground, you must also pay attention to the background. Then the foreground appears. The foreground needs to be embraced by the background. Small and large presuppose each other.

Our desire to control life works more wisely, I believe, if we acknowledge our inevitable dependence on a larger, embracing background. As I said, we cannot control everything, just as an artist cannot paint only the foreground. I want to suggest that we can view philosophy as an activity that reminds us of that. It helps us see the controllable in the light of the uncontrollable. It reminds us of the larger context: the background that the human intellect does not master, but must presuppose and interact with wisely.

It does not have to be dramatic. Even everyday life has philosophical dimensions that exceed our conscious control. Children learn to talk beyond their parents’ control, without either curricula or examinations. No language teacher in the world can teach a toddler to talk through lessons in a classroom. It can only happen spontaneously and boundlessly, in the midst of life. Only those who already speak can learn language through lessons in a classroom.

The ability to talk is thus the background to language teaching in the classroom. A language teacher can plan the lessons in detail. The youngest children’s language acquisition, on the other hand, is so inextricably linked to what it is to live as a human being that it exceeds the intellect’s ability to organize and govern. We can only remind ourselves of the difference between foreground and background in language. Here follows such a philosophical reminder. A parent of a schoolchild can say, “Now you’ve been studying French for two hours and need a break: go out and play.” However, a parent of a small child who is beginning to talk cannot say, “Now you’ve been talking for two hours and need a break: go out and play!” The child talks constantly. It learns in the midst of playing, in the midst of life, beyond control. Therefore, the child has no breaks.

Had Herb Terrace seen the difference between foreground and background in language, he would never have used the insane method of training sign language with the chimpanzee Nim in a special classroom, as if Nim were a schoolchild who could already speak. Sometimes we need a bit of philosophy (a bit of reason) for our projects to work. Foreground and background interact everywhere. Our welfare systems do not work unless we fundamentally live by our own power, or by life’s own power. Pandemics hardly subside without the virus moving through sufficiently many of our, thereafter, immune bodies – under controlled forms that protect groups at risk and provide the severely ill care. Everywhere, foreground and background, controllable and uncontrollable, interact.

The dream of complete intellectual control is therefore a pitfall when we philosophize. At least if we need philosophy to elucidate the living background of what lies within human control. Then we cannot strive to define life as a single intellectually controllable foreground. A bit of philosophy can help us see the interplay between foreground and background. It can help us live actively and act wisely in the zone between controllable and uncontrollable.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

We like ethics

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What is a moral machine?

I recently read an article about so-called moral robots, which I found clarifying in many ways. The philosopher John-Stewart Gordon points out pitfalls that non-ethicists – robotics researchers and AI programmers – may fall into when they try to construct moral machines. Simply because they lack ethical expertise.

The first pitfall is the rookie mistakes. One might naively identify ethics with certain famous bioethical principles, as if ethics could not be anything but so-called “principlism.” Or, it is believed that computer systems, through automated analysis of individual cases, can “learn” ethical principles and “become moral,” as if morality could be discovered experientially or empirically.

The second challenge has to do with the fact that the ethics experts themselves disagree about the “right” moral theory. There are several competing ethical theories (utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics and more). What moral template should programmers use when getting computers to solve moral problems and dilemmas that arise in different activities? (Consider self-driving cars in difficult traffic situations.)

The first pitfall can be addressed with more knowledge of ethics. How do we handle the second challenge? Should we allow programmers to choose moral theory as it suits them? Should we allow both utilitarian and deontological robot cars on our streets?

John-Stewart Gordon’s suggestion is that so-called machine ethics should focus on the similarities between different moral theories regarding what one should not do. Robots should be provided with a binding list of things that must be avoided as immoral. With this restriction, the robots then have leeway to use and balance the plurality of moral theories to solve moral problems in a variety of ways.

In conclusion, researchers and engineers in robotics and AI should consult the ethics experts so that they can avoid the rookie mistakes and understand the methodological problems that arise when not even the experts in the field can agree about the right moral theory.

All this seems both wise and clarifying in many ways. At the same time, I feel genuinely confused about the very idea of ​​”moral machines” (although the article is not intended to discuss the idea, but focuses on ethical challenges for engineers). What does the idea mean? Not that I doubt that we can design artificial intelligence according to ethical requirements. We may not want robot cars to avoid collisions in city traffic by turning onto sidewalks where many people walk. In that sense, there may be ethical software, much like there are ethical funds. We could talk about moral and immoral robot cars as straightforwardly as we talk about ethical and unethical funds.

Still, as I mentioned, I feel uncertain. Why? I started by writing about “so-called” moral robots. I did so because I am not comfortable talking about moral machines, although I am open to suggestions about what it could mean. I think that what confuses me is that moral machines are largely mentioned without qualifying expressions, as if everyone ought to know what it should mean. Ethical experts disagree on the “right” moral theory. However, they seem to agree that moral theory determines what a moral decision is; much like grammar determines what a grammatical sentence is. With that faith in moral theory, one need not contemplate what a moral machine might be. It is simply a machine that makes decisions according to accepted moral theory. However, do machines make decisions in the same sense as humans do?

Maybe it is about emphasis. We talk about ethical funds without feeling dizzy because a stock fund is said to be ethical (“Can they be humorous too?”). There is no mythological emphasis in the talk of ethical funds. In the same way, we can talk about ethical robot cars without feeling dizzy as if we faced something supernatural. However, in the philosophical discussion of machine ethics, moral machines are sometimes mentioned in a mythological way, it seems to me. As if a centaur, a machine-human, will soon see the light of day. At the same time, we are not supposed to feel dizzy concerning these brave new centaurs, since the experts can spell out exactly what they are talking about. Having all the accepted templates in their hands, they do not need any qualifying expressions!

I suspect that also ethical expertise can be a philosophical pitfall when we intellectually approach so-called moral machines. The expert attitude can silence the confusing questions that we all need time to contemplate when honest doubts rebel against the claim to know.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Gordon, J. Building Moral Robots: Ethical Pitfalls and Challenges. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 141–157 (2020).

We recommend readings

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Herb Terrace about the chimpanzee Nim – do you see the contradiction?

Have you seen small children make repeated attempts to squeeze a square object through a round hole (plastic toy for the little ones)? You get puzzled: Do they not see that it is impossible? The object and the hole have different shapes!

Sometimes adults are just as puzzling. Our intellect does not always fit reality. Yet, we force our thoughts onto reality, even when they have different shapes. Maybe we are extra stubborn precisely when it is not possible. This post is about such a case.

Herb Terrace is known as the psychologist who proved that apes cannot learn language. He himself tried to teach sign language to the chimpanzee Nim, but failed according to his own judgement. When Terrace took a closer look at the videotapes, where Nim interacted with his human sign-language teachers, he saw how Nim merely imitated the teachers’ signs, to get his reward.

I recently read a blog post by Terrace where he not only repeats the claim that his research demonstrates that apes cannot learn language. The strange thing is that he also criticizes his own research severely. He writes that he used the wrong method with Nim, namely, that of giving him rewards when the teacher judged that he made the right signs. The reasoning becomes even more puzzling when Terrace writes that not even a human child could learn language with such a method.

To me, this is as puzzling as a child’s insistence on squeezing a square object through a round hole. If Terrace used the wrong method, which would not work even on a human child, then how can he conclude that Project Nim demonstrates that apes cannot learn language? Nevertheless, he insists on reasoning that way, without feeling that he contradicts himself. Nor does anyone who read him seem to experience any contradiction. Why?

Perhaps because most of us think that humans cannot teach animals anything at all, unless we train them with rewards. Therefore, since Nim did not learn language with this training method, apes cannot learn language. Better methods do not work on animals, we think. If Terrace failed, then everyone must fail, we think.

However, one researcher actually did try a better method in ape language research. She used an approach to young apes that works with human children. She stopped training the apes via a system of rewards. She lived with the apes, as a parent with her children. And it succeeded!

Terrace almost never mentions the name of the successful ape language researcher. After all, she used a method that is impossible with animals: she did not train them. Therefore, she cannot have succeeded, we think.

I can tell you that the name of the successful researcher is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. To see a round reality beyond a square thinking, we need to rethink our thought pattern. If you want to read a book that tries to do such rethinking about apes, humans and language, I recommend a philosophical self-critique that I wrote with Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleague William Fields.

To philosophize is to learn to stop imposing our insane thoughts on reality. Then we finally see reality as it is.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Segerdahl, P., Fields, W. & Savage-Rumbaugh, S. 2005. Kanzi’s Primal Language. The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language. Palgrave Macmillan.

Understanding enculturated apes

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