Autonomous Robots Autonomous Children

I read an article recently in IEET, a transhumanist journal, about regulating autonomous robots. The author lays out reasons why it is hypocritical to regulate or prohibit the construction of autonomous robots. His initial premise is that we make children all of the time, and for all intents and purposes they are the same thing as autonomous robots:

My suggestion is this: If creating children is morally unproblematic, then so is creating autonomous robots, unless we can identify morally relevant differences between the two acts. But what exactly is the moral issue with creating robots that is avoided when we create human beings? Or, in other words, when we’re talking about autonomous beings, why is the responsibility of the parent seemingly less than the responsibility of an inventor?

He lays out several of the arguments people typically give for why children are different from robots and then proceeds to refute them. He concludes that “[u]ltimately, it could be that there is a defensible moral difference between creating children and autonomous robots. But it is not obvious what that difference is, despite our taking it for granted.”

Robots don’t mature from infant to adult. They don’t bleed. They don’t reproduce. They don’t suffer. Robots are assembled by people, and the only way they can “do” any of these functions is if they are programmed to mimic human beings. They cannot do these things on their own. Children are assembled by a series of hormonal and biological mechanisms, some of which remain a mystery to us today. Parents merely provide the parts; they don’t program children to bleed or suffer or rebel. And while the author makes a distinction that children born through IVF are constructed just as robots are constructed, I would contend that IVF doctors are putting the parts together, but that the child does not grow in the directional process to adulthood until it is put back in the uteral environment where that same set of signals and biological mechanisms can do its work.

Most importantly, human beings are more than the sum of their parts. They have personalities, creativity, and are capable of things that no mechanical object can be capable of without being programmed to mimic human behavior.  Humans suffer, and they hope. Even robots that solve novel problems are programmed to do so. The information and tools to assess a scenario is front-loaded by the programmer, while humans are capable of true creative innovation. To assume the premise that creating children is not morally different from creating a robot presumes a reductionistic and deterministic view of children that does not match with experience and observation. Robots are programmed by their inventor, but anyone who has children knows that while they may take on certain personality traits of their parents, they are most assuredly not “programmed” by their parents (See your nearest toddler).

Even my husband’s Mac which seems slightly autonomous because everything is automatic and it seems to correct its own problems, is not truly autonomous. The only way a Mac would “attack” a human being is if it is programmed to do so, and in that case it still comes down to the evil that men do to one another, the weapons are just smaller, faster, and more complex.

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