Do Robots Wear Whigs?

At the heart of Adam’s conciliatory remarks is an abiding question: “will this time be different?” Most of the time, it’s just a bunch of history repeating, but thinking machines (if Robin Hanson is right, it’ll be brain uploads way before it’ll be AI) really actually are a kettle of horses of a different fish color. It’s probably not accurate to think of a brain uploaded to a piece of mechanical hardware as a “robot”, but it probably is important to think about what it should be called. If rhetoric curates moral intuition, cultivates tender affections, and captivates bright imagination, meatbag humans such as ourselves could be predisposed to truck, barter, and exchange with their mechanical fellow travelers differently depending on whether they view them as “neighbors” or as “others”.

We tend to think of robots and the like as what they are: cleverly-designed I/O machines, but still just lifeless tubes, wires, glass, metal, and plastic after all. Brain emulations or distant-future AI will have moral agency in a way that Google is only just flirting with now that they’re hitching up to deploy driverless cars on the roads of the world. Entities with moral agency can have complex (& emergent) social, legal, & al relationships with other such entities. We here and now probably can’t put a stick in the ground and say, “we need to start thinking of robots or brain uploads the same way we think about our distant fleshy descendants,” but we might be able to ease some concerns by reminding folks that things always look different from a distance. I can appreciate having some anxiety about a world with trillions of tiny uploaded brains performing intricate tasks many thousands of times faster than a soggy, boggy, big-belly human could, but I console myself with the likelihood that many of these uploads (or AIs, depending on how things go) will be quite clever and will probably be more than willing to devote some time and processing power to finding adequate solutions.

The fact that I’m unable to conjure an effective nostrum this far in advance is hardly evidence that none exists. Probably the best I can do from here and now is to remind folks that even in a subsistence world ruled by robot overlords, there will still be plenty of wonderful experiences to go around. Would you rather be you here and now or be Artaxerxes II Mnemon of Mesopotamia in 400 BCE? Indoor plumbing is pretty cool, you guys.

Eli’s right that the work of the future probably won’t resemble the work of today. This should be cause for celebration. We look back on the days when humans were foraging, subsistence farming, or toiling in nasty factories with a mixture of pity and disgust. Who knows what our descendants will think of our labor? Whatever they do think, my petty vanity hopes that they think well of us and our efforts to respect their autonomy, their sovereignty, and their dignity. Folks are adaptable. They’ll adapt to a robotic future.

 

For more on this topic, I did a podcast with Robin Hanson a little while ago that grazes some of these concerns.