Social Justice Series: Sentient AI, Intimacy, and Ethics

Have you ever wondered what ethical dilemmas would become apparent with the introduction of sentient artificial intelligence? Or perhaps more specifically, what problems might lie in having intimate relationships with sentient robots? These are the questions asked by Rebecca Gibson at the Social Justice Colloquium of February 6th where she delved into a number of issues almost exclusively discussed in science fiction. Thanks to the research of those like Rebecca, we can be prepared for the Valentine ’s Day in the future when these issues become a reality.

Rebecca Gibson is a PhD candidate at American University, whose dissertation research is focused on the impact of corsetry on skeletons, yet as evidenced by the topic of this article, her interests are incredibly diverse. She became interested in the ethics of artificial intelligence due to the lack of information on the topic. Her work on this topic has already been published and discussed elsewhere, and is driven by the universal question in Anthropology—what does it mean to be human? Once this question and some of the answers it has received are applied to the concept of artificial intelligence where does the discussion lead us?

Beginning by discussing the philosophers of past centuries, Gibson pointed out that being human has meant a number of things to different people. For Descartes the ability to think granted some sort of personhood, while for Levi-Straus this identity came from our ability to tell stories pieced together from individual experiences. But how do we determine the presence of personhood in created humanoid AI, as we see so often in Sci-Fi literature and film?

Rachel, for example, from the Blade Runner film or its print precursor Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a humanoid robot who is unaware of her existence as a created object, and is therefore convinced of her own personhood.  Data, an Android form the famous Star Trek franchise is also an example of artificial intelligence, yet he is completely aware of this fact and exhibits emotions, tells stories, owns a cat, most definitely thinks, and, at one point, becomes “intimate” with a human officer aboard the same star ship. What criteria can be used to judge whether these two individuals are indeed persons, regardless of whether they know how they came to be?

For Rebecca, this discussion brings up themes of sentience, free will, and agency. Sentience and free will are difficult to pin down even in the case of known humans; yet agency, or the ability to make decisions, was more suited to our 45 minute discussion. Humans make decisions every day, about what to eat, what to wear, and who to be with. But how would an artificially created being make decisions, and further, would this decision making power be enough to qualify as a person?

The characters discussed above, as well as some others such as Eva from the film Ex Machina exhibit the ability to make their own decisions. What does this mean for their interactions with human beings? As creations, should these androids and robots be relegated to a servile existence as inhuman objects? Or does their ability to make a choice give them the right to do just that?

This question becomes particularly important in the case of sexual companionship, and how to address the issue has not been definitively solved. Rebecca Gibson’s presentation did not seek to answer all of the relevant questions, but simply to open the floor to discussing the possibility of artificial intelligence before it becomes a reality. This future may be closer than we realize, and having discussions such as this about ethics may help prevent pain suffering on the part of any future created intelligence.


Check out our Social Justice Series Website to learn about our upcoming speakers.

Check out the Masters in Public Anthropology Website to learn more about the MAPA program.

Meet the Wrijoshua-schea-300ters: Joshua Schea is a PhD student at American University researching urban private schools. His research focuses on the question of how private schools address the issue of inequality as it exists in their surrounding environment. Joshua is currently in his second year at AU

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