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Robotic Souls 

Charles T. Rubin

Will AI contain multitudes? Do we?

Today we see widespread interest in developing artificially intelligent robots as companions, caregivers, and sexual partners. Japan has become famous — but is hardly alone — for developing caregiver robots to deal with the oncoming deficit of its own citizens to look after an aging population. Just recently, Scientific American published an article titled “Grandma’s Little Robot: Machines that can read and react to social cues may be more acceptable companions and caregivers.” Surely it would be interesting to parse the significance of the caution implied by “may be.”

Meanwhile, it seems an absolute truism among certain futurists and libertarians that robots are the next big thing in the sex trade. And indeed the creation of sex bots is underway. Some provocateurs have argued that these robots could help to resolve the sexual frustrations of lonely men, but the public has generally regarded these developments as concerning, laughable, or creepy. Nevertheless, the effort to create them is driven by powerful commercial motives.

At the same time, there seem always to be new impressive developments in the field of artificial intelligence — to name a few recent examples, self-driving cars, a program that plays Go at the highest level, and various high-quality medical diagnostic systems. These are admittedly not examples of what is sometimes called “strong AI,” that is, AI that shows something like the full range of abilities of a human mind. But increasingly these narrow-application systems are developed through deep-learning techniques that are at least closer than previous methods to allowing AIs in effect to teach themselves — which suggests the possibility that far more widely ranging intellectual abilities could be developed.

In short, given the notoriously rapid rate of technological development, in the longer term it may well be that an effort to create an artificial human-like mind is not a fool’s errand. Already it could be matched with a virtual “body” that under limited circumstances might be mistaken for human in an on-screen encounter. Such avatars will surely only become more convincing in the not-so-distant future.

Real embodiment, however, is farther off than is supposed by many of those working on it, as we can see in their tendency to fall prey to something like a Pygmalion syndrome when promoting their own, often not even remotely compelling, works. But there is little reason to doubt the ability of human ingenuity ultimately to triumph here as well. Creating a robot with a human-like mind in a human-like body would certainly be a great advance from the perspective of those who advocate a transhuman and posthuman future, a future where intelligence is no longer bound to the constraints of the organic body bequeathed to us by the random processes of evolution. But the drive for human-like robots does not, for the most part, depend on these aspirations.

Questions about the moral status of robots that (so we assume) would look and act in ways that make them hard to distinguish from human beings have been raised by popular accounts of robots from the beginning — the 1921 play R.U.R. that gave us the term “robot” was in large part concerned with the moral meaning of the exploitation of these artificial humanoids. Today the academy is beginning to catch up, under the rubric of asking whether robots will have rights.

Our answers to questions about the moral status of robots will depend in part on whether we can find any morally relevant grounds on which to distinguish robots from humans....

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Charles T. Rubin, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is a professor of political science at Duquesne University, and the author of Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress (New Atlantis Books/Encounter, 2014). From 2017 to 2018 he was the James Madison Program Forbes Visiting Fellow at Princeton University. This essay has been adapted from a talk delivered at Princeton at the 2017 Robert J. Giuffra Conference of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

Charles T. Rubin, "Robotic Souls," The New Atlantis, Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 75-82.