Why A.I. robotics should have the same ethical protections as animals

If A.I.s are as smart as mice or dogs, do they deserve the same rights?

Universities across the world are conducting major research on artificial intelligence (A.I.), as are organisations such as the Allen Institute, and tech companies including Google and Facebook.


A likely result is that we will soon have A.I. approximately as cognitively sophisticated as mice or dogs. Now is the time to start thinking about whether, and under what conditions, these A.I.s might deserve the ethical protections we typically give to animals.

Discussions of "A.I. rights" or "robot rights" have so far been dominated by questions of what ethical obligations we would have to an A.I. of humanlike or superior intelligence – such as the android Data from Star Trek or Dolores from Westworld. But to think this way is to start in the wrong place, and it could have grave moral consequences. Before we create an A.I. with humanlike sophistication deserving humanlike ethical consideration, we will very likely create an A.I. with less-than-human sophistication, deserving some less-than-human ethical consideration.

We are already very cautious in how we do research that uses certain nonhuman animals. Animal care and use committees evaluate research proposals to ensure that vertebrate animals are not needlessly killed or made to suffer unduly. If human stem cells or, especially, human brain cells are involved, the standards of oversight are even more rigorous. Biomedical research is carefully scrutinised, but A.I. research, which might entail some of the same ethical risks, is not currently scrutinised at all. Perhaps it should be.

You might think that A.I.s don't deserve that sort of ethical protection unless they are conscious – that is, unless they have a genuine stream of experience, with real joy and suffering. We agree. But now we face a tricky philosophical question: how will we know when we have created something capable of joy and suffering? If the AI is like Data or Dolores, it can complain and defend itself, initiating a discussion of its rights. But if the AI is inarticulate, like a mouse or a dog, or if it is for some other reason unable to communicate its inner life to us, it might have no way to report that it is suffering.

A puzzle and difficulty arises here because the scientific study of consciousness has not reached a consensus about what consciousness is, and how we can tell whether or not it is present. On some views – 'liberal' views – for consciousness to exist requires nothing but a certain type of well-organised information-processing, such as a flexible informational model of the system in relation to objects in its environment, with guided attentional capacities and long-term action-planning. We might be on the verge of creating such systems already. On other views – 'conservative' views – consciousness might require very specific biological features, such as a brain very much like a mammal brain in its low-level structural details: in which case we are nowhere near creating artificial consciousness.

It is unclear which type of view is correct or whether some other explanation will in the end prevail. However, if a liberal view is correct, we might soon be creating many subhuman AIs who will deserve ethical protection. There lies the moral risk.

Discussions of "A.I. risk," in needless vivisections, the Nazi medical war crimes, and the Tuskegee syphilis study). With AI, we have a chance to do better. We propose the founding of oversight committees that evaluate cutting-edge A.I. research with these questions in mind. Such committees, much like animal care committees and stem-cell oversight committees, should be composed of a mix of scientists and non-scientists – A.I. designers, consciousness scientists, ethicists and interested community members. These committees will be tasked with identifying and evaluating the ethical risks of new forms of A.I. design, armed with a sophisticated understanding of the scientific and ethical issues, weighing the risks against the benefits of the research.

It is likely that such committees will judge all current A.I. research permissible. On most mainstream theories of consciousness, we are not yet creating A.I. with conscious experiences meriting ethical consideration. But we might – possibly soon – cross that crucial ethical line. We should be prepared for this.Aeon counter – do not remove

John Basl & Eric Schwitzgebel

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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