Prepare for robot nonsense

February 26, 2018

Pär SegerdahlAs computers and robots take over tasks that so far only humans could carry out, such as driving a car, we are likely to experience increasingly insidious uses of language by the technology’s intellectual clergy.

The idea of ​​intelligent computers and conscious robots is for some reason terribly fascinating. We see ourselves as intelligent and conscious beings. Imagine if also robots could be intelligent and aware! In fact, we have already seen them (almost): on the movie screen. Soon we may see them in reality too!

Imagine that artifacts that we always considered dead and mechanical one day acquired the enigmatic character of life! Imagine that we created intelligent life! Do we have enough exclamation marks for such a miracle?

The idea of ​​intelligent life in supercomputers often comes with the idea of a test that can determine if a supercomputer is intelligent. It is as if I wanted to make the idea of ​​perpetual motion machines credible by talking about a perpetuum mobile test, invented by a super-smart mathematician in the 17th century. The question if something is a perpetuum mobile is determinable and therefore worth considering! Soon they may function as engines in our intelligent, robot-driven cars!

There is a famous idea of ​​an intelligence test for computers, invented by the British mathematician, Alan Turing. The test allegedly can determine whether a machine “has what we have”: intelligence. How does the test work? Roughly, it is about whether you can distinguish a computer from a human – or cannot do it.

But distinguishing a computer from a human being surely is no great matter! Oh, I forgot to mention that there is a smoke screen in the test. You neither see, hear, feel, taste nor smell anything! In principle, you send written questions into the thick smoke. Out of the smoke comes written responses. But who wrote/generated the answers? Human or computer? If you cannot distinguish the computer-generated answers from human answers – well, then you had better take protection, because an intelligent supercomputer hides behind the smoke screen!

The test is thus adapted to the computer, which cannot have intelligent facial expressions or look perplexed, and cannot groan, “Oh no, what a stupid question!” The test is adapted to an engineer’s concept of intelligent handling of written symbol sequences. The fact that the test subject is a poor human being who cannot always say who/what “generated” the written answers hides this conceptual fact.

These insidious linguistic shifts are unusually obvious in an article I encountered through a rather smart search engine. The article asks if machines can be aware. And it responds: Yes, and a new Turing test can prove it.

The article begins with celebrating our amazing consciousness as “the ineffable and enigmatic inner life of the mind.” Consciousness is then exemplified by the whirl of thought and sensation that blossoms within us when we finally meet a loved one again, hear an exquisite violin solo, or relish an incredible meal.

After this ecstatic celebration of consciousness, the concept begins to be adapted to computer engineering so that finally it is merely a concept of information processing. The authors “show” that consciousness does not require interaction with the environment. Neither does it require memories. Consciousness does not require any emotions like anger, fear or joy. It does not require attention, self-reflection, language or ability to act in the world.

What then remains of consciousness, which the authors initially made it seem so amazing to possess? The answer in the article is that consciousness has to do with “the amount of integrated information that an organism, or a machine, can generate.”

The concept of consciousness is gradually adapted to what was to be proven. Finally, it becomes a feature that unsurprisingly can characterize a computer. After we swallowed the adaptation, the idea is that we, at the Grand Finale of the article, should once again marvel, and be amazed that a machine can have this “mysterious inner life” that we have, consciousness: “Oh, what an exquisite violin solo, not to mention the snails, how lovely to meet again like this!”

The new Turing test that the authors imagine is, as far as I understand, a kind of picture recognition test: Can a computer identify the content of a picture as “a robbery”? A conscious computer should be able to identify pictorial content as well as a human being can do it. I guess the idea is that the task requires very, very much integrated information. No simple rule of thumb, man + gun + building + terrified customer = robbery, will do the trick. It has to be such an enormous amount of integrated information that the computer simply “gets it” and understands that it is a robbery (and not a five-year-old who plays with a toy gun).

Believing in the test thus assumes that we swallowed the adapted concept of consciousness and are ecstatically amazed by super-large amounts of integrated information as: “the ineffable and enigmatic inner life of the mind.”

These kinds of insidious linguistic shifts will attract us even more deeply as robotics develop. Imagine an android with facial expression and voice that can express intelligence or groan at stupid questions. Then surely, we are dealing an intelligent and conscious machine!

Or just another deceitful smoke screen; a walking, interactive movie screen?

Pär Segerdahl

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Not knowing why

January 17, 2018

Pär SegerdahlOften we do not know why we think as do. We may like a drawing, but we cannot say why we think it is good. We may find it unpleasant that researchers study human embryos in petri dishes and then discard them, but we cannot say why.

Personally, I find not knowing why interesting and I do not mind spending ages without being able to state a single sensible reason. There is something fruitful in it, something secretly promising. But it can also drive people crazy. The strange thing is that you easily satisfy them by giving any idiotic reason, as long as it superficially sounds like “saying why.” It satisfies the intellect, which cannot understand how anyone can think something without a reason. It reminds me of a complaint about the neighbor’s dog: it often barks without reasonable grounds.

I would not be suited to participate in a TV debate program. The strange thing is that in such debates people really do behave like barking dogs, precisely by always giving reasons: “Your opinion is idiotic, because woof-woof, woof-woof!” – Debating is most likely overrated… but why do I think so?

Immediately satisfying the demands of the intellect seems unwise. Apart from committing us to opinions that must be defended, which makes it difficult to change, we are forced to give our thoughts premature form. They are prevented from deepening and surprising us.

A Chinese philosopher said, “To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.” But the intellect forces us to pretend to know. The intellect goes insane if we do not exhibit this insanity.

Acknowledging that you do not know, and then giving yourself time, that is wisdom.

Pär Segerdahl

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Big questions do not have small answers

December 20, 2017

Pär SegerdahlSome questions we perceive are “bigger” than other questions. What does it mean to live, to be, rather than not to be? When does life begin and when does it end? What is a human being? Does life have a meaning or do we endow it with mere façades of meaning?

We do not expect definitive answers to these questions, except for a joke. They are wonderings that accompany us and occasionally confront us. We may then notice that we have an attitude to them. Perhaps a different attitude today than ten years ago. The attitude is not a definitive answer, not a doctrine about reality that dry investigations could support or falsify.

Bioethics sometimes comes close to these big questions, namely, when scientists study what we can associate with the mystery of living, being, existing. An example is embryonic stem cell research, where scientists harvest stem cells from human embryos. Even proponents of such research may experience that there is something sensitive about the embryo. I would not exist, we would not live, you would not be, unless once upon a time there was an embryo…

The embryo is thus easily associated with the big questions of life. This implies that bioethics has to handle them. How does it approach them?

Usually by seeking specific answers to the questions. Like super-smart lawyers who finally get the hang of these age-old, obscure issues and straighten them out for us.

Do you know, for example, when a human being begins to exist? Two bioethicists combined biological facts with philosophical analysis to provide a definitive answer: A human being begins to exist sixteen days after fertilization.

Incorrect, other bioethicists objected. They too combined biological facts with philosophical analysis, but provided another definitive answer: A human being begins to exist already with fertilization. The only exception is twins. They begin to exist later, but much earlier than sixteen days after fertilization.

The bioethicists I am talking about are proud of their intellectual capacity to provide specific answers to such a big question about human existence. However, if big questions do not have small answers, except for a joke, do they not deliver the answer at the cost of losing the question?

The question I am currently working on is how bioethics can avoid losing the questions we perceive are “bigger” than other questions.

Pär Segerdahl

Smith, B. & Brogaard, B. 2003. Sixteen days. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 28: 45-78.

Damschen, G., Gómez-Lobo, A. & Schönecker, D. 2006. Sixteen days? A reply to B. Smith and B. Brogaard on the beginning of human individuals. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 31: 165-175.

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Taking people’s moral concerns seriously

September 19, 2017

Pär SegerdahlI recently published a post on how anxiety can take possession of the intellect: how anxiety, when it is interpreted by thoughts that rationalize it, can cause moral panic.

A common way of dealing with people’s moral concerns in bioethics is to take the concerns intellectually seriously. One tries to find logical reasons for or against the “correctness” of the anxiety. Is the embryo already a person? If it is, then it is correct to be morally concerned about embryonic stem cell research. Persons are then killed by researchers, who are almost murderers. However, if the embryo is not a person, but just an accumulation of cells, then there is at least one reason less to worry.

Bioethicists therefore set out to conclude the metaphysical issue about “the status of the embryo.” So that we will know whether it is intellectually correct to worry or not! One reason for this intellectualized approach is probably society’s need for foundations for decision-making. Should embryo research be allowed and, if so, in what forms? Decision-makers need to be able to motivate their decisions by citing intellectually appropriate reasons.

Bioethicists thus interpret people’s moral concerns as if they were motivated by intuitive folk-metaphysical thinking. This thinking may not always be perfectly logical or scientifically informed, but it should be possible to straighten out. That would satisfy society’s need for intellectually well-founded decisions that “take people’s concerns seriously.”

The problem with this way of taking people’s concerns seriously is that their worries are intellectualized. Do we worry on the basis of logic? Are children afraid of ghosts because they cherish a metaphysical principle that assigns a dangerous status to ghosts? Can their fear be dealt with by demonstrating that their metaphysical principle is untenable? Or by pointing out to them that there is no evidence of the existence of beings with the horrible characteristics their principle assigns to “ghosts”?

Why are many people hesitant about research with human embryos? I have no definitive answer, but doubt that it is due to some folk-metaphysical doctrines about the status of the embryo. Perhaps it is more related to the fact that the embryo is associated with so much that is significant to us. It is associated with pregnancy, birth, children, family life, life and death. The connection to these intimate aspects of life means that we, without necessarily having the view that embryo research is wrong, can feel hesitant.

The question is: How do we take such moral hesitation seriously? How do we reject delusions and calm ourselves down when the intellect starts to present us with horrible scenarios that certainly would motivate anxiety? How do we do it without smoothing things over or acting like faultfinders?

I believe that bioethics should above all avoid intellectualizing people’s moral concerns; stop representing moral hesitation as the outcome of metaphysical reasoning. If people do not worry because of folk-metaphysical doctrines about the embryo, then we have no reason to debate the status of the embryo. Instead, we should begin by asking ourselves: Where does our hesitation come from?

That would mean taking ourselves seriously.

Pär Segerdahl

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Moral panic in the intellect

September 6, 2017

Pär SegerdahlMoral panic develops intellectually. It is our thoughts that are racing. Certain mental images make such a deep impression on us that we take them for Reality, for Truth, for Facts. Do not believe that the intellect is cold and objective. It can boil over with agitated thoughts.

This is evident in bioethics, where many issues are filled with anguish. Research information about cloned animals, about new techniques for editing in the genome, or about embryonic stem cell research, evoke scary images of subversive forms of research, threatening human morality. The panic requires a sensitive intellect. There, the images of the research acquire such dimensions that they no longer fit into ordinary life. The images take over the intellect as the metaphysical horizon of Truth. Commonplace remarks that could calm down the agitated intellect appear to the intellect as naive.

A science news in National Geographic occasions these musings. It is about the first attempt in the United States to edit human embryos genetically. Using so-called CRISPR-Cas9 technique, the researchers removed a mutation associated with a common inherited heart disease. After the successful editing, the embryos were destroyed. (You find the scientific article reporting the research in Nature.)

Reading such research information, you might feel anxiety; anxiety that soon takes possession of your intellect: What will they do next? Develop “better” humans who look down on us as a lower species? Can we permit science to change human nature? NO, we must immediately introduce new legislation that bans all genetic editing of human embryos!

If the intellect can boil over with such agitated thoughts, and if moral panic legislation is imprudent, then I believe that bioethics needs to develop its therapeutic skills. Some bioethical issues need to be treated as affections of the intellect. Bioethical anxiety often arises, I believe, when research communication presents science as the metaphysical horizon of truth, instead of giving science an ordinary human horizon.

It may seem as if I took a stand for science by representing critics as blinded by moral panic. That is not the case, for the other side of moral panic is megalomania. Hyped notions of great breakthroughs and miraculous cures can drive entire research fields. Mental images that worry most people stimulate other personalities. Perhaps Paolo Macchiarini was such a personality, and perhaps he was promoted by a scientific culture of insane mental expectations on research and its heroes.

We need a therapeutic bioethics that can calm down the easily agitated intellect.

Pär Segerdahl

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We philosophize when we do not know how to think

August 14, 2017

Pär SegerdahlPhilosophers are also called thinkers. We easily believe that philosophers are specialists in thinking, as linguists are specialists in speech and writing. If someone knows how to think, it must be a philosopher, we think.

I believe we are wrong to think philosophers know how to think. Rather, they are people who know when we do not know how to think. They acknowledge (for all of us) when we do not know how to think (although we thought we knew). Such confessions probably need to me made more often!

If you think you know how to think about immigration, or about stem cell research, then you have an opinion. The opinion may be substantiated, but it hardly makes you a thinker, but rather a molder of public opinion. Since you already know how to think, you do not have to think. You only need to keep on talking, according to what you believe you know.

“I need more time to think about it; I don’t know how I should think.” We fail to notice that there is a way of thinking that begins the very moment we do not know how to think. At that moment, the philosophical dimension of thinking opens up.

When you know how to think, you no longer think. Not in the philosophical sense. If you meet an argumentative chatterbox, or a schoolmasterly specialist in thinking, you can be sure it is not a philosopher.

Pär Segerdahl

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The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking


Research is not a magical practice

May 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhy does hearing about research sometimes scare us in a vertiginous way? I mean the feeling that researchers sometimes dig too deeply, that they see through what should not be seen through, that they manipulate the fundamental conditions of life.

It does not have to concern GMOs or embryonic stem cell research. During a period, I wrote about studies of human conversation. When I told people that I was working on conversation analysis, I could get the reaction: “Oh no, now I dare not talk to you, because you’ll probably see through everything I say and judge how well I’m actually talking.”

Why do we react in such a way? As if researchers saw through the surface of life, as through a thin veil, and gained power over life by mastering its hidden mechanisms.

My impression is that we, in these reactions, interpret research as a form of magic. Magic is a cross-border activity. The magician is in contact with “the other side”: with the powers that control life. By communicating with these hidden powers, the magician can achieve power over life. That is at least often the attitude in magical practices.

Is this how we view research when it scares us in a dizzying way? We think in terms of a boundary between life and its hidden conditions; a boundary that researchers transgress to gain power over life. Research then appears transgressive in a vertiginous way. We interpret it as a magical practice, as a digging into the most basic conditions of life.

The farmer who wants to control the water level in the field by digging ditches, however, is not a magician who communicates with hidden forces. Digging ditches gives you ordinary power in life: it gives control of the water level. I would like to say that research is more like digging ditches to control the water level than like engaging in magic to control life itself. Certainly, research gives power and control – but in life, not over “life itself.”

This does not mean that research does not need to be regulated; digging ditches probably needs regulation too.

The magical aura of charismatic researchers sometimes seduces us. We think they are close to the solution of “the riddle” and give them a free hand… We must be careful not to give research work a magical interpretation.

Pär Segerdahl

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