If we invent a machine with a personality and desires, does it deserve freedom?
The human race has never been shy when it comes to enslaving fellow human beings. The ancient Babylonians owned slaves, as did the Greeks and the Romans, as well as the Coast Salish tribes of the Pacific Northwest, not to mention the Chinese, various African nations, and infamously, the Portuguese slavers who brought Africans bound in chains to suffer and toil in the New World. As slavery became a global enterprise, terms such as “slave trade,” “slave raiding” and “slave markets” became common in numerous tongues, across much of the world.
As soon as mankind gave up its hunter-gatherer existence, and settled down into agrarian-based societies of varying scales, distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘other’ were often exploited to take advantage of others, in order to force them into undesirable work (not hunting, of course). Skin color, religion, which side of a particular war someone happened to be on, the caste systems and a host of other criteria were used to dehumanize and devalue the rights of other sentient beings, and thus justify their bondage or near bondage. When the law forbade outright ownership and slavery, other means of control were available. Debt, historical precedent, geographic origins and indentured servitude were just some of the tools that made it possible for one man to rule over another, even if he didn’t have actual ownership papers.
While slavery, in its various forms, has subsided in many parts of the world (although not all, unfortunately), the desire to get others to carry out our labor intensive work hasn’t slackened much. Migrant workers, illegal immigrants and people trafficked against their will are often paid only a fraction of the minimum wage (if anything at all), and forced to live and work in appalling conditions. I once happened upon, by accident (I opened the wrong door) a dark and dingy sweatshop in a major American city. About thirty Asian women were running sewing machines, working in a space meant for ten people at most. Rolled up sleeping mats and pillows, as well as what looked like small cooking stoves, lined the walls. I noticed several women curled up into balls, sleeping in the corners of the room. An older woman noticed me noticing them. She got up from her chair, yelled at me in Cantonese, and slammed the door in my slack-jawed face.
With the advent of modern technology, our workforce has moved away from some of the chores that used to require the labor of many employees or slaves. Gadgetry and machines, from combines and dishwashers to motorized transportation and automated assembly lines run by robots can be found in many societies now, although a significant number of people in the developing world still rely on rudimentary tools to carve out a very basic form of living.
Despite the disparities between and within different societies, our steady march into a digital existence, and our desire to seek out increasingly sophisticated forms of technological aid, have created the possibility of artificial intelligence (A.I.) coming into being, and the fear that A.I. might somehow slip into our machines and then spiral out of human control, creating chaos and destruction, just like the major slave revolts of old. While the plausibility of this is up for debate, it’s an intriguing notion that has grabbed our attention on a visceral cultural level, as evidenced by the rise of the machines in iconic films like Terminator and The Matrix, and the classic collection of sci-fi short stories in I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov. If the creations we’ve built to do our bidding attain consciousness someday, will it still be morally right to keep them enslaved?
My belief in the better nature of human beings had me thinking for quite some time that our fascination with this subject, often seen through the lenses of science fiction, stemmed from the moral growth of human society as a whole, and the universal realization that slavery is evil, and inherently wrong, no matter the form. While I agree with this last sentiment unequivocally, I think the dialogue some of us might be having about the nature of life and the future sentience of inanimate things parallels likely conversations the rulers of Ancient Egypt, and other slave owning societies (ours among them) once had. If we recognize these working ‘machines’ as equal, with rights and more than basic survival needs, who’s going to do all of our hard work? Not us, after all. That’s why we built/enslaved them in the first place.
Oddly enough, in the Star Wars universe, the most popular film franchise of all time, there seems to be an endless supply of sentient robots with distinctive personalities, emotive ways of expressing fears, doubts and desires, and the need to preserve life. Yet even so, most (not all) of these androids and robots are property, in the service of flesh and blood creatures. Even biological clones are denied any true freedom. The moral questions, centered on the creation and enslavement of sentient life, found so often in other works of science fiction, are strangely absent here. Maybe George Lucas is more comfortable with the idea of robot servitude than his peers are—or maybe I’m expecting too much from a space opera, at least as far as the philosophical conundrums surrounding android and clone slavery are concerned.
Some folks (like Sterling Archer) fear the coming of cyborgs and robots. Will their overwhelming computational power and strength diminish the value of an ordinary human life? Other people, and I suspect Mr. Lucas might fall into this camp, welcome as much technology as we can possibly muster, because machines are capable of doing things we simply can’t, like printing buildings on the moon, or unpleasant activities we’re reluctant to undertake, like killing and dealing with industrial waste.
Maybe with intelligent robots scooting around everywhere, we’ll finally run out of reasons to look down upon people we see as ‘other,’ because we’ll be too busy looking down on our slave-like machines, or else dodging missiles raining down from drones that have ‘decided’ to go off the grid, and explore this vast world on their own. The future, it would seem, is wide open.
Image credit: Andres Rueda/Flickr