Chapter 1: The Human Difference
Editors Note: This post is a part of a series on Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.
The first question when considering machine ethics is “where to start?” We could start with a definition of ethics, an understanding of what is possible, or how machines are improving at an increasing rate. Instead, we are going to start the discussion with an analysis of humanity’s unique characteristics so we can prepare ourselves to discuss machine capabilities in a similar light. Humanity is the only species where broad agreement exists surrounding the application of ethics and is the initial reason why we are interested in AI’s impact within it. The uniqueness of humanity, at least presently, is that ethics are applied to it (in terms of character qualities), or from it (in terms of actions) to the surrounding world. This is not to say that humanity is necessarily the source of ethics, but that humanity’s impact on ethics and application of ethics allows us to better understand how it might apply to artificial intelligence. As we progress in this chapter we’ll discuss the qualities of humanity, understand how unique it is, and contrast it against the evolving world of artificial intelligence, but also remind ourselves about what we are protecting.
Let’s consider what makes humanity different, though not necessarily unique, as we’ll discuss later in the relationship between humanity’s capabilities and a machine’s capabilities. The Human Difference represents the qualities of humanity which other beings may be judged against, although not necessarily assuming humanity will always be superior in all of them.
- Intelligence. There are many definitions of intelligence or intellect, some composite (closer to wisdom) and other more specific. In this case, I’m thinking specifically about the acquisition of knowledge and the extent to which a being can learn both about a thing’s qualities, as well as knowing about the thing itself. The possession of intelligence not only represents the application of organic computational power, information storage, and the ability to learn from previous experiences, but also represents the sort of knowledge possessed. In considering the computational and storage comparison, the brain is such a wonder (and sometimes mystery), that it doesn’t function in quite the same way a mechanical computer does, which has a straightforward storage and recall process. The human brain maintains rich connections between neurons which both process and contain memories, often reconstructed from various parts of the brain to bring information to the forefront. The ability for humans to retain large amounts of information, understand it, learn from it, and then make decisions is one of the greatest differentiators from other animals. Although the chemical electrical connections in the brain fire far slower than modern computers, the density of neurons is far greater than anything that exists at the time of writing. It isn’t just the density of neurons however that determine intelligence, as is shown with other animals of similar neuron count, but is also their distribution and specialized function. In this sense although other animals may have the same computational power, humans alone seem to be able to both know about something and to know it as itself. Inspecting the evolutionary record, we can see from comparison with other animals that our intelligence and sort of intelligence is one factor that consistently lets humanity out-compete other animals for scarce resources and for general dominance, where animals are clearly faster, stronger, or better adapted to conditions. It is our capacity for intelligence that allows humanity to create new ways to solve similar tasks, something that we see primates do on a basic basis, but humanity does on a far more capable level. Intelligence might not be the only factor that sets humanity apart, but it certainly represents a significant one.
- Consciousness. The definition of consiousness stems off the concept of awareness, either of surroundings, self, “what something is like”, and internally. The detailed definition of consciousness has eluded many philosophers, as with so many things it is intuitive for people who exist within it, but difficult to prove. Human consciousness includes the experiencing of the world around us, comparing it subjectively, storing experiences in memory, evaluating experiences, engaging in introspection, and later understanding it. A widely theorized definition includes the segmentation of consciousness into access (A-consiousness) and phenomenal (P-consiousness). The distinction includes the access, evaluation, and introspection of information in the A-consiousness and the experiencing in the P-consiousness. To imagine the access of information (much like we’d understand many computers) without the experiencing of information (or subjectivity) leads to gaps in what we would typically understand consciousness to be. This gap is sometimes made manifest in the term “philosophical zombie”, which is a being which behaves like a conscious human, but still does not contain consciousness. It is easy to picture a computer acting as a “philosophical zombie”, where it is programmed to respond to human prompting in a convincing way, but doesn’t actually have consciousness. At the root of of a true understanding of consciousness is the importance of the distinction between simply raw intelligence and programming vs. true consciousness.
- Sentience. To be sentient is to be able to perceive the world, through a number of senses or inputs and apply that sense subjectively. The capability to possess an opinion and feel. This is sometimes described as “qualia”, the “introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives”. The answering of the question, “how does this make you feel?” is something we wouldn’t presently ask a computer, but we can perceive from a human, such as love, enjoyment, anger, or worry. The relationship between information and its impact on us is not just objective data, but perceived outcomes that then impact our mood, reflection, and approach. For example, a sensor might indicate a certain temperature of a room and even indicate the likelyhood of equipment failure, but only a sentient being is understanding itself to “feel cold” or “feel warm” based on its perception of the temperature in respect to itself. The difference between the thermostat and human sentience is not just the number of sensors, but the extent to which the sensing object takes the information and understands it in respect to itself in first person.
- Decision making. The ability to consider existing data and use a qualitative process to differentiate between decision trees to arrive at a conclusion. This can also relate to the idea of “critical thinking”. The decision-making process is often made with imperfect information, understanding that humans not only can excel at decision making that reflects the best outcome, but also can possess a tolerance for ambiguity to establish norms in the decision making to arrive at the most likely answer. The breakdown of decision making is often divided into two sub-types, though more likely exist and do exist with computer-based systems:
- Decision Making Type 1: Effortful Rational System. The making of decisions using a “top down”, step-by-step approach. This model tends to result in more complete answers but is slower at arriving at a result because it needs to re-examine the evidence each time and requires a greater amount of computational power or time to make up for the algorithm’s execution. The effortful rational system can be very effective at certain types of decisions which require high accuracy and attention to detail. For example, your financial auditor likely uses this system to validate your company’s books, but you might not use it when deciding whether or not to cross the street. This is the model we also most closely understand legacy computer models, such as those used by Deep Blue to approximate to, since historical ML models were based on applying brute force to decision trees based on available data.
- Decision Making Type 2: Intuitive. The making of decisions from a “bottom up” approach called the automatic intuitive system, leveraging previously understood data and heuristics to fast track the decision making. This system uses previous experiences to approximate the most likely answer quickly, leading to faster, but less complete arrival at judgement. This system is as if you had a series of computational decision trees, but instead of running through them, the system would simply find the one most likely to run correctly. More experienced individuals (or computers) can use this to make decisions very quickly, even in scenarios with large amounts of data. This is sometimes understood as “trusting your gut”, which isn’t an intestinal concept, but instead the product of experience with a scenario which gives people uncommonly high perception of the right direction. Think of an expert fisherman who just “knows” where the fish are going to be, based on a variety of factors. He didn’t scan the entire stream looking for the right spot. He just knows the spot based on factors he’s seen many times and can apply to make a decision faster. This model is also common in more modern AI models which are getting closer to human intuition while also leveraging some of the previous decision making system.
- Intentionality. “the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties, or states of affairs”. The idea of intentionality is the idea that we can desire an outcome and then attempt to act based on that desire. We can intend to shoot a basketball through a hoop, or run a mile, or complete a test successfully. The intention does not necessarily mean we are successful, but it does mean that we set out to do something based on a definition of that end in the mind. This is an important concept because we judge the character of a person based on their intent vs. just their actions. If a person tripped another by accident they might only be clumsy or careless, vs. if they did it on-purpose, where they would be judged further negatively based on their character. The intentions of a person and the extent to which they align with what is considered acceptable are one of the most significant ways by which we evaluate a human as good, or bad, a subject which we’ll investigate later.
- Altruism. behavior “motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself for that person’s sake”, being the idea of setting someone else before our own concerns, even if it makes us individually worse off. The motivation of altruism might be love or ought, ultimately leading a person to make a choice to better another. This is made for the good of someone else, vs. the good of the individual performing the good. This is somewhat of a counter-evolutionary concept, at least at the micro-level, since the action being taken actually makes the individual worse off. At a macro-level the motivations might be based on something greater, but in that case it isn’t necessarily altruistic. Altruism at its core requires the person to give of themselves without the motivation of receiving a compensatory benefit as a result.
- Learning. The acquisition of information which is retained for future decision making and applied to an existing set of knowledge, which is closely aligned to the concept of intelligence. You cannot be intelligent if you do not have the capacity to learn. A key aspect of humanity is its propensity to acquire knowledge for application in later situations, even if the degrees of this differ between people. The methods of learning are numerous and the cause for continual debate about the efficacy of each, but regardless the simple fact that humans learn is special in itself. An interesting aspect of learning is how fast it can be on a micro-level (such as touching a hot stove), vs. long it can be on a macro-level (such as learning a new language). It seems that the more capable the intellectual system, the more time it takes for it to be functional at maintaining itself. For example, an ant can become functional very quickly, but has very little top-end capability. Humans in comparison are basically reliant on their parents to survive for many years of their life and take a very long time to achieve a high density of useful knowledge. The human capacity to learn, react, and retain an enormous set of knowledge over a long period is tied into our intelligence, which we mentioned earlier as a key differentiator from less intelligent animals.
- Relationships. In this I specifically mean inter-personal relationships vs. permanent relationships like (mother-father-child). The idea that one person is influenced by, engaged with, or emotionally close to another. For instance, you don’t typically enter into a relationship with your couch, or a table, but you would enter into relationship with another human being. This is because a relationship is based on some level of reciprocity, although it may be uneven, it requires “two to tango”. This isn’t to say there aren’t different levels of relationships, such as the relationship between a parent and a small child vs. husband and wife. Each of these relationships are special in their own way and our capacity to be in relationship at a certain level is an important aspect of what makes us human. At some level, the relationships can be sustaining beyond even a parity of capability. Think for instance a person who has a relationship with their relative who has a mental condition, but the relationship still exists and has its own special character. We as human beings are wired for relationships, in various forms, and can feel incomplete without it.
- Free will. The concept describes a certain kind of control over actions, tied to intentionality and not based on purely chemical or programmed responses, including “when an agent exercises free will over her choices and actions, her choices and actions are up to her”. This may be considered one of the most powerful aspects of humanity. The ability to make choices which we own as individuals. It is so attached to humanity that it is typically considered a “right” which if taken away reveals a type of oppression or punishment. Thomas Aquinas considered humans to have certain operating principals pre-programmed (such as “the good), but that we had free will to attempt to pursue that end by our own choices. We also combine the granting the exercise of free will with capability. For instance, a child might want to stay up past their bed time, but the more intelligent adult will override this act of the will. In cases of depriving free will, such as slavery, we see that removal of it from a capable person is considered un-just. The decision points are complex and varied and make up a contentious issue between parents, children, criminals, citizens, the sick, and disabled. Free will and the granting of it, represents the most complete freedom for a human and may end up being one of the most interesting questions regarding machines.
- Empathy. The being aware of another’s feelings and connecting to those feelings or “taking on” those feelings from another. This is divided into both affective empathy and cognitive empathy. The affective empathy is the ability to see an emotional state and respond with the appropriate communication and approach. A common scenario where affective empathy is applied would be nursing, where the nurse sees the state of the patient and has “bedside manner” to interact with the patient appropriately. This is sometime also understood as “emotional intelligence”, where a person is aware of themselves and the person they are interacting with to communicate appropriately. The contrasting cognitive empathy is understanding the state of the other person’s feelings and vicariously experiencing them to connect with the other. This is beyond simply recognizing an emotion, but instead taking on the emotion and personalizing it within the other individual. Empathy is both an intelligent and an emotional issue which operates at the receiving end because of an understanding the person with empathy is both understanding their emotional state as well as connecting with it vs. merely an intelligence of it. If you imagine a cold hearted person saying, “I understand your scenario” vs. a person with empathy saying “I understand your scenario”, there is a major qualitative difference.
- Creativity. The capacity to build new, undiscovered realities, also related to “imagination”. This quality can be leveraged in art, science, engineering, sports, medicine, and virtually any other human pursuit. It is the opposite of a repetitive task and instead the raw discovery and instantiation of something new and previously non-existing. Creativity is one of the greatest qualities in the Human Difference on a functional level, since it tends to represent the highest capabilities of the best of anyone at a particular craft, not because of the precision by which they do work, but because of the difference and accuracy at accomplishing its purpose.
- Humor. The ability to find something “funny”… not just to tell a joke, or realize that is technically funny, but to actually find it funny. Think about how a baby laughs at its mother, or a child laughs at its father, or a comedy set might be perceived as hilarious. Is this an emotional let-down, or a type of “play”, or a realization of incongruity tied to emotion? It might not seem like much, but the more you examine it, the more humor becomes one of the qualities which you see nowhere but in the Human Difference.
- Morality. The ability to recognize the appropriateness of choices based on their alignment to a defined standard, including either “descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior”, or “normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons”. A common understanding of that standard is “good” and “evil”, or “right” and “wrong”, each of which depicts an appropriateness of the act. The origination of the standard is hotly debated among humanity, with a large proportion of people believing that a universal objective standard exists (usually attributed to God as the source of “good”), while another portion believing that the standard has no universal source and is based on evolution or common-good theory. The ability for humanity to recognize and manage itself based on a moral code (vs. just instinct) is the groundwork for societal interaction, religious thought, and is generally considered unique among humanity vs. other intelligent animals. The concept of morality is at the key of how we “ought” to act and represents how we engage in complex interaction with other individuals in a mutually acceptable manner. The definition of a “good person” or a “person of character” is a key definition of how we judge the relative weight or quality of a person’s life and when based partially on intentionality will prove to be a challenging characteristic to evaluate in a machine.
- Soul. There is a broad belief within humanity that in addition to the physical nature of our body, we also possess a soul which is separate, yet interwoven with our body. The soul represents an important reality that we will consider later in this series, but it is not a dependency to understand humanity to be special and to have characteristics which a machine may or may not possess. That aside, the idea of the soul is one of the most important and frequently considered qualities of humanity. The soul is typically considered a spiritual realm closely tied to religious properties, of which there are many interpretations and beliefs. For example, the CCC describes the soul as follows, “the innermost aspect of humans, that which is of greatest value in them, that by which they are in God’s image described as ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principal in man’. An interesting question to consider, for those who believe in the soul, is “what combination of qualities grant’s a person a soul?” There are people who are unintelligent, don’t have empathy, don’t have self-awareness (might be in a coma), or are an infant, but most agree they have a soul. Is this based on the potential capability of a person, or based on the starting qualities? This question we will investigate at a high level later, but certainly will not answer, as it is a question for poets, philosophers, and theology. It is however potentially connected to the last quality, which answers “who created you?”
- Created by. There is also broad belief within humanity that in addition to possessing a soul, humanity was created intentionally by a universal divine being, or God. This specific intentional creation embodies humanity with specific value beyond its basic characteristics. In the same way the creation of a painting by a particular artist possesses certain value, so does humanity, in its creation “on purpose, for a purpose” by God. This isn’t accepted by all people of course, but to a high percentage of the population, it reflects the most important uniqueness of humanity. The term “created in the image and likeness of God” is meant to describe the value that every person possesses not just because of our qualities, but because of who created us.
- Purpose. “what is the reason you exist?”… the fulfilment of an existential purpose for the life they have been given. The idea that someone needs to “find themselves” or “understand their purpose”, typically attributed to a universal creator, is a given quality. It is something bestowed upon the thing, not something the thing defines for itself. A purpose in a theological sense might be “to know and love God and to bring about truth, beauty, and joy”, which makes assumptions on the origination of humanity and where our destination arrives. In a non-human sense, the purpose of a toaster is to make toast, or perhaps channeling “jobs theory” its end is to nourish a person. If we are to believe that people have a purpose as well… that is a Human Difference indeed as it speaks to WHY we are here, not just HOW or WHAT we do. To answer the purpose question is to understand WHY.
- Life. The typical definition of life centers around the separation between organic and non-organic matter. The extent to which living is “autopoietic systems: self-constructing, self-maintaining, energy-transducing autocatalytic entities”… or that they continue to reproduce as a result of themselves organicly, in the sense that a mother and a father produce the conditions for life to form in the womb of the woman. In a similar sense, the material from two plants forming the source material for the next plant. The question on the Human Difference will be, how extensible is the definition of life? Does the matter to self-reproduce need to be material or could it be algorythims or knowledge? This I believe will make an already complex area more complex.
The human person is a complex and beautiful machine, clearly set apart by the qualities mentioned, with modern ethics respecting how these come to bare. We can see from the aggregation of these qualities that human beings are something special that we should value in their uniqueness and in each of these qualities individually. A question I don’t intend to answer but is worth addressing is “which of these qualities are truly unique to humanity?”. For instance, if you start removing qualities does humanity become less special vs. what we might create in a machine. This is a question to be addressed beyond this series but is a very interesting one indeed.
The interesting next step for this series will be, “how do these qualities apply to a machine?” In some cases we have yet to reach any level of standard agreement across humanity as to how we apply certain concepts, such as empathy, intelligence, or morality, which leads to an even greater challenge of how these same concepts are applied in machines. That said, we will attempt to bring advancement to the extent to which a machine might possess each quality and how.