Evolution and ethics

Evolution and ethics

From the AiM Next Generation Technologies team

The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Not a lot happened for more than 4.4 billion of those years, until the rise of mammals about 65 million years ago. Since then mammals have diversified and become the dominant life form, although not the most populous. Whatever the genesis of life on Earth, its trajectory has been defined by one overriding concept: evolution. Like it or not, all living things have a biological imperative to reproduce, and in order to do so they evolve to maximise their chances of survival. Evolution generally takes millions of years but occasionally it occurs at an accelerated pace, for example in a 100 year period during the industrial revolution, peppered moths which are generally white bodied were largely replaced by the black body form due to changes in atmospheric pollution. Evolution is about advantage, whether physical or mental. From an evolutionary perspective the development of self-aware AI is surely a good thing. The rate of accumulation of knowledge will increase exponentially, and the ability to make more informed decisions, and control our bodies and environment are enhanced; even our ability to manipulate and manage other species increases, potentially safeguarding our planet and our supremacy.

This is all good, isn’t it? So why is there a growing debate about the ethics of creating self-aware, autonomous, machines? Ethics concern moral philosophy: how should we conduct ourselves; how should society work; should we aim for supremacy? Ethics and evolution can work together or be at odds. Evolution says that tigers eat people, so we should kill them, and if they become extinct, so be it (“survival of the fittest” as Darwin would have said). Ethics say that tigers should not be killed (even if they do, rarely, kill people) because they are prized, beautiful creatures and both their trade and their possible extinction are not acceptable. The concept of ethics is the product of a highly developed mind, it’s about relationships, society and our impact on the natural world. We know we have significantly altered the planet, so surely self-aware AI is the way to maximise our chances of preserving it. That’s one outcome, but what happens if sentient AI decides that the natural world is part of the problem, and not only suggests, but implements solutions which eliminate the issue. How then do we decide the best course of action, who decides this, and what if we have no input or chance to intervene? Do we let evolution decide, or ethics?

History tells us that populist movements do succeed – the French Revolution and the fall of the Berlin wall – but these events are rare and more often it’s the powerful and rich who hold sway. Ethics apply equally to all, and the debate needs contributors with many different viewpoints, so we look at all elements of an argument and consider all the variables. Ethics facilitate a dialogue, and in a world where we are ever more able to influence evolution, it is a dialogue we need to have, and sooner rather than later. Will AI be influenced in the same way as humans – by a select few? We have two options – take action now to understand the consequences, or sit back and wait and see.