Saturday, January 9, 2010

Legal Subjectivity and Artificial Intelligence

A recent co-authored article in the Globe and Mail written by Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer, and Warsaw-based independent researcher Agata Sagan entitled "When Robots Want Rights" raises some thoughts about the legal status and subjectivity of robots and/or other forms of artificial intelligence. Namely, if and when such "life forms" achieve "consciousness" - that is to say - "consciousness" that human society recognizes as such, what might be the legal, social and/or cultural benchmarks for determining this.

Singer and Sagan express reasonable doubts about whether such artificial life forms would be capable of acquiring independent legal status beyond their present status as mere property even if they were able to demonstrate that they had feelings. This is in part based on the experience of animals who are sentient forms of life that are still considered property. With respect to artificial life forms, there might be questions about whether these feelings were genuine or simply feelings that they are programmed to experience. The authors state:

The hard question, of course, is how we could tell that a robot really was conscious and not just designed to mimic consciousness. Understanding how the robot had been programmed would provide a clue: Did the designers write the code to provide only the appearance of consciousness? If so, we would have no reason to believe that the robot was conscious.

But if the robot was designed to have human-like capacities that might incidentally give rise to consciousness, we would have a good reason to think that it really was conscious. At that point, the movement for robot rights would begin.

In various films, books, television shows and even songs, forms of artificial intelligence have become important characters. How and in what way has the concept of legal autonomy for these life forms filtered through these cultural narratives?

A number of science fiction films have anticipated life in the future involving advanced forms of artificial intelligence achieving a high degree of sentience - that is, the ability to feel and perceive subjectively. In the science fiction realm this means the ability of artificial life forms to achieve a certain degree of human-like qualities and the ability to express, amongst other things, desire and insight. The Star Wars films are a perfect example of droids having a number of emotions, attitudes, personalities, wit and it would seem an ability to experience pain upon destruction or injury. Still they are property of their various respective owners and subject to their owners' abuse and/or benevolence.

According to cognitive scientist Steve Torrance (referred to in Singer and Sagan's article), in the event that such conscientious artificial intelligence life forms are not accepted as part of a moral (read: human) community the possibility for abuse is great. Membership in such communities is often socially and culturally contingent regardless of one's status as human beings, animal or artificial life (one can hardly forget that human beings historically had at one time been deemed property capable of being bought and sold - such individuals were deemed to lack legal autonomy or subjectivity).

Perhaps one of the most striking circumstances of an artificially intelligent life form achieving some independent legal status within the narrative of a film or television show was the character Data in the (now defunct) television series Star Trek: The Next Generation and subsequent films. In the Star Trek world, Data is the property of Starfleet, the military branch of the Federation of Interstellar Planets. In an episode entitled "The Measure of a Man", Data is confronted with being dismantled so that a particular Starfleet officer and scientist, Maddox may learn certain aspects about Data's functioning. Data refuses as he believes that Maddox would not know how to perform the procedure correctly and with sufficient care. This would thus endanger Data's ability to operate in the same capacity when reassembled. After Data is ordered to submit to the dismantling at the orders of Starfleet Command, he ponders whether his resignation would avoid his need to submit to Starfleet's orders. Once again he is informed that as property of Starfleet, he must subject himself to their whims. Subsequently, at the urging of Data's commanding officer and friend, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, a hearing is convened to determine Data's legal status - is he merely property to be disposed of at Starfleet's will or is he a type of life form worthy of being conferred an autonomous legal status?

Substantively, the presiding tribunal officer holds that Data is a sentient being given that he satisfies two out of three criteria for determining sentience. Clearly, Data from his depiction on screen has intelligence, and is self-aware. The tribunal officer further concludes that it is unnecessary to determine whether Data has "consciousness" - the third criteria - as the officer determines that this often refers to a spiritual notion of whether an individual possesses a soul (notice here the limited definition ascribed to consciousness in comparison to the broader understanding expressed by Singer and Sagan). Given that there is no available evidence or judicial standards to assess whether human or other anthropomorphic life (on the show) possess this characteristic, it is deemed inapplicable. Thus, Data's legal status is transformed from a type of chattel to that of an autonomous being.

Concurrent with the arguments about whether Data, as an android is capable of (legally determinable) sentience, there is the asserted notion that to rule against Data's claim for legal autonomy would be tantamount to endorsing slavery. This is raised by the character Guinan, played by (African-American actress) Whoopi Goldberg who tries to persuade Picard (Data's impromptu legal counsel for the purpose of these proceedings) that the slavery of a whole class of such life forms presents a significant moral issue for the Federation that imagines itself as guided by benevolent and progressive notions. A whole host of characters on the show might have equally raised this rather valid point, yet the point is probably made more poignant (from the perspective of viewers) when delivered by Goldberg, as a representative of a class of people within United States society whose ancestors were subjected to slavery and deemed chattel by the United States Supreme Court in Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 [Dred Scott]. Guinan becomes a conduit to transmit the shameful legacy of the Dred Scott decision into the discourse surrounding Data's worth as a sentient being. In a sense, Data's trial is a science fictional repudiation of the Supreme Court's decision (although that repudiation in the real world was at least formally performed by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments).

Data's value as a sentient being is also signaled in the series by his ability to fit into the moral community of the USS Enterprise. Although awkward at times in his quest to be more human, Data is a trusted member of the officer class, who engages in combat as part of and for the benefit of the crew and who also socially intermingles with other officers through poker games and other activities.

As an example of the intersection of law and popular culture, "The Measure of a Man" attempts to address two legal concepts that touch upon Data's legal subjectivity. The first concept is the ability of an artificially intelligent life form to achieve (human-like) sentience - as expressed by a sense of self-awareness and demonstrable intelligence. The second concept is that to deny Data legal autonomy is to in effect legally endorse slavery over a recognized form of life. The latter point of course only has resonance if we agree that Data is indeed sentient. But as Singer would point out (returning to our own temporal and terrestrial space), animals are similarly sentient but are clearly still deemed chattel. What perhaps then carries Data over the threshold into legal autonomy is his membership and participation in the moral community, and more to the point that community's willingess to allow him entry. It probably doesn't hurt that Data in most respects looks like a human.

If artificial intelligence life forms are to graduate from forms of personal property to subjects with legal autonomy, what "The Measure of a Man" suggests is that Data might serve as the minimum normative benchmark for achieving this.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Creating Communities

The internet, it is often said, is a democratic medium in which users are free to express themselves and their thoughts directly to the worldwide audience. As in the non-cyber world, there are degrees of consequence associated with such expression. As we have seen all too frequently, at the worst end of the spectrum of consequences are reprisals taken against those who use the internet to speak their minds, particularly in authoritarian regimes, where such dissent would not be tolerated as a physical act of speaking. At the other end of the spectrum of consequences, we see examples of job seekers denied jobs or people fired from their jobs due to questionable postings on social networking sites. Both ends of this consequence spectrum involve the piercing of the internet’s fluid nature by concrete, outside norms, be they state repression or employer concerns over employee activities and behavior.

This piercing is fascinating, yet what is also fascinating is the creation of communities within the internet itself and how these communities then pierce the concrete communities and norms of those who participate in them and vice versa. The recent movie “Julie and Julia” provides insights into these relationships and the process of community and norm building online.

The plot of the movie is relatively simple, and parallels the lives of Julia Child and Julie Powell. While the portions of the movie pertaining to Julia Child are extremely interesting, the focus of this post is on the portrayal of Julie. Julie is a woman in her thirties who moves from Brooklyn to Queens with her husband at the beginning of the movie. While both boroughs are part of the larger City of New York, it is clear that each has its own culture, and that Julie is not pleased with the move, which is justified as allowing her husband to live near his office. Julie’s real passion is writing, however the novel she penned was not successful and so she has taken a bureaucratic job. The movie is set in the year 2002 and, we soon discover, Julie’s job at the Lower Manhattan Development Agency involves taking calls that are primarily related to post-September 11th related questions from the public. The audience hears the calls she receives on a daily basis, which range from idiotic questions to irate callers to truly horrible stories of loss and tragedy. With one exception, Julie’s friends are highly successful and shallow, and her meetings with them seem to make Julie feel inadequate. Indeed, when one of her friends, a writer for a New York magazine, asks to interview her for a story, Julie finds out too late that the real subject of the story is New Yorkers who have lowered their job expectations.

Julie’s one passion is cooking and her icon is Julia Child. Eventually, Julie decides to start a blog which will chronicle her attempts to complete every recipe in Julia Child’s famed cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, over the course of a year. In creating the blog, Julie creates the rules and boundaries for the community she hopes to foster through her project. She will make every recipe – even the difficult recipes or the recipes that are difficult for her, such as those involving the cooking of live lobster – and will tell her readers the results even if the results are not as envisioned in the cookbook. Julie also does not shy away from bringing others, such as her husband, into the blog community through references to his assisting in her culinary endeavors.

The blog starts off with no readership except for Julie’s mother, who sends her messages questioning the advisability of the blog. When Julie starts to question her project she discovers, however, that she has readers and fans, and soon the blog becomes a top-rated blog. From there the fan base continues to grow, with readers offering suggestions and comments online. The boundaries of the online and concrete start to cross, however, when readers begin to send Julie cooking products in the mail and when the blog catches the attention of traditional media. This cross-over continues into Julie’s personal life, when she insists that she has to keep up with the project because of her readers even when her marriage starts to suffer. It continues when her husband tells her not to mention him in the blog and when her boss nearly fires her for calling in sick when it was clear from the blog that she was quite healthy. Further, her boss makes it clear that she would lose her job if any references were made to him in the blog. In the end, Julie completes her project and, in a bittersweet blog posting, also ends the blog despite the national attention that it has gathered throughout the course of the year.

Thus, Julie is faithful to the law she established regarding the duration of the blog. However, it becomes apparent throughout the movie that she cannot enforce some of the other laws and rules she established for the blog community at the beginning of her project. Julie does establish a community in which she and her talents for writing and cooking are validated, and in which she does not shy away from open dialogue regarding her successes and failures. However, she cannot keep this community from crossing over into her concrete, quotidian community and life. The blog becomes a source of tension between Julie and her husband, both in terms of her dedication to the community which sprung up around it and in terms of his inclusion in it. By reading her blog posts, Julie’s boss was clearly able to ascertain that she was not ill when she claimed to be, indicating that membership in the community expanded beyond those who were truly interested in the project, as originally intended. The attention garnered by the blog ultimately demonstrated that, while Julie could set the basic parameters of the community as she envisioned it, her ability to control the community and enforce these parameters was limited given the fluid nature of the internet.

Ultimately, Julie’s blog demonstrates that the internet is indeed a democratic medium in which individual people can not only speak their minds but also create communities around their interests. Julie’s blog also demonstrates the difficulties associated with enforcing the laws and norms of an online community and in keeping this community separate from one’s concrete community.