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Diverse dilemmas: Cetaceans & robots!

Jul 15, 2012

Back in the Pacific Northwest, Washington – British Columbia region, where the whales rule the high seas, I am confounded by potential challenges entailed in classifying them as humans. There is yet another thread in the diversifying diversity weave, again from a recent story from The Economist. No, it is not about Higgs boson! Morals and the machine: Teaching robots right from wrong. Yes this will be a big one to handle too, for diversity practitioners, in not so distant a future.

Whale & dolphin watch The cetaceans are coming Dilemma 1:

  • Cetaceans like whales and dolphins, have a high degree of intelligence, and also have self-awareness like the humans.
  • Their brains are as anatomically complex as those of humans. They also contain a particular type of nerve cell known as the spindle cell. In humans this is associated with abstract reasoning. Moreover, these are much bigger than those of great apes, thought of as humanity’s closest intellectual cousins.
  • They have complex cultures, which varies from group to group within a species. They have distinct and differentiated use of vocal signals and tools. Seem to have awareness of themselves as individuals. At least some can recognise themselves in a mirror.
  • According to Dr Thomas White, a philosopher from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a person need not be human. He believes that a person is a being with special characteristics who deserves special treatment as a result of those characteristics. So other species can qualify. Hence cetaceans can have moral rights appropriate to their species, though different from those accorded to humans.
  • The term ‘stocks’, with its implication that whales and dolphins are a resource suitable for exploitation, is being overtaken by ‘populations’, a word that is also applied to people.
  • A group of killer whales that lives near Vancouver, passing between waters controlled by Canada and the US, have acquired legal protection even though the species as a whole is not endangered. After a battle in the American courts these whales have been defined by their culture, and the culture is deemed endangered.
  • The idea of rights for whales echoes Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s proposal that human rights be extended to the great apes – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

“Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”

– Moby Dick

Despite all the valiant efforts by “Save the Whales”, International Whaling Commission (IWC) & Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), thanks to pirate whaling, 15 species have become vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

Managing and breeding them in captivity may soon come within the purview of HR managers. Whether whales and dolphins will have the benefit of access to the likes of International Human Rights Commission or a separate set of laws and enforcement mechanism need to be codified?

Technology running ahead of legislation Dilemma 2:

As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines will end up making life or death decisions, thereby assuming moral authority. Moreover, as the human operators go out of the loop , such robotic machines will be presented with ethical dilemmas. Regulating the development and use of autonomous robots will require an elaborate framework, in the following three areas:

  • Laws are needed to determine whether the designer, the programmer, the manufacturer or the operator is at fault if an autonomous machine has an accident.
  • Where ethical systems are embedded into robots, the judgements made by them need to be ones that seem right to most people. Studies from how people respond to ethical dilemmas need to be reigned in.
  • More collaboration is called for between engineers, ethicists, lawyers and policy makers. Ethicists are likely to gain a greater understanding of their field by trying to teach ethics to machines, and engineers need to reassure society that they are not taking any ethical shortcuts.

“Baby you can drive my car”

– The Beatles

Driverless cars are very likely to be safer than ordinary vehicles, as auto-pilots have made planes safer. Sebastian Thrun, a pioneer in the field, estimates driverless cars could save 1 million lives a year.

In conclusion:

Despite the diversities of the two dilemmas, there are interesting dissimilarly similar underlyings. In the first, we are discovering higher forms of hitherto unknown levels of intelligence. With this growing realisation, we need to take a call whether we are gracious and generous enough to bestow the moral authority rightfully due to them – the wonderful habitants of the blue seas? In the second, we are inventing higher abilities to perform intelligent acts. Are we ready to abdicate increasing moral authority before we weigh the risks entailed?

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