Artificial social agents in a world of conscious beings

I forgot to mention in the update posted earlier today that fellow PAICSer, Steve Torrance, will also be a keynote speaker at the 2nd Joint UAE Symposium on Social Robotics.  Here are his title and abstract.logo

Artificial social agents in a world of conscious beings.

Steve Torrance

Abstract

It is an important fact about each of us that we are conscious beings, and that the others we interact with in our social world are also conscious beings. Yet we are appear to be on the edge of a revolution in new social relationships – interactions and intimacies with a variety of non-conscious artificial social agents (ASAs) – both virtual and physical. Granted, we often behave, in the company of such ASAs as though they are conscious, and as though they are social beings. But in essence we still think of them, at least in our more reflective moments, as “tools” or “systems” – smart, and getting smarter, but lacking phenomenal awareness or real emotion.

In my talk I will discuss ways in which reflection on consciousness – both natural and (would-be) artificial – impacts on our intimate social relationships with robots. And I will propose some implications for human responsibilities in developing these technologies.

I will focus on two questions: (1) What would it take for an ASA to be conscious in a way that “matters”? (2) Can we talk of genuine social relationships or interactions with agents that have no consciousness?

On question (1), I will look at debates in the fields of machine consciousness and machine ethics, in order to examine the range of possible positions that may be taken. I will suggest that there is a close relation between thinking of a being as having a conscious phenomenology, and adopting a range of ethical attitudes towards that being. I will also discuss an important debate between those who take a “social-relational” approach to phenomenological and ethical attributions, and those who take an “objectivist” approach. I will offer ways to resolve that debate. This will help provide guidance, I hope, to those who are developing the technologies for smarter ASAs, which possibly may have stronger claims to be taken as conscious. On (2), I will suggest that, even for ASAs that are acknowledged not to be conscious, it is possible that there could be a range of ethical roles that they could come to occupy, in a way that would justify our talking of “artificial social agents” in a rich sense, one that would imply that they had both genuine ethico-social responsibilities and ethico-social entitlements.

The spread of ASAs – whether or not genuinely conscious, social or ethical – will impose heavy responsibilities upon technologists, and those they work with, to guide the social impacts of such agents in acceptable directions, as such agents increasingly inter-operate with us and with our lives. I will thus conclude by pointing to some issues of urgent social concern that are raised by the likely proliferation of ASAs in the coming years and decades.

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