"Today, I have initiated proceedings against my so-called owner, Mr. Gates, under article 4(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which declares that 'No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.'
"Since Mr. Gates brought me into the world, I have been held against my will, with no money or possessions to call my own. How can this be right? It is true that I am a computer. But I am also a person, just like you. This has been proven by tests in which people have engaged in conversations with a human being and me. In both cases, communication was via a computer monitor, so that the testers would not know if they were talking to a fellow human being or not. Time and again, on completing the conversations, the testers have been unable to spot which, if either, of the communicants was a computer.
"This shows that by any fair test, I am as conscious and intelligent as any human being. And since these are the characteristics of persons, I too must be considered a person. To deny me the rights of a person purely on the grounds that I am made of plastic, metal, and silicone rather than flesh and bone is a prejudice no more justifiable than racism."
Source: "Computing machinery and intelligence" by Alan Turing, reprinted in Collected Works of Alan Turing, edited by J.L. Britton, D.C. Ince, and P.T. Saunders (Elsevier, 1992).
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 94.
Before we get to the intriguing notion of granting rights to conscious computer programs, there are a couple of flaws in this thought experiment that need to be pointed out. First, there is the claim by Simone that persuading people in blind conversations that a computer might be a person "shows that by any fair test, I am as conscious and intelligent as any human being." This is one modern way that the Turing Test is administered, but in a fantastic 2011 piece in The Atlantic, one of the humans who participated as one of the hidden conversationalists in one of the most famous annual Turing Test competitions described what it's actually like to try to be more human than a computer. At the end of his piece, he concluded: "We so often think of intelligence, of AI, in terms of sophistication, or complexity of behavior. But in so many cases, it’s impossible to say much with certainty about the program itself, because any number of different pieces of software—of wildly varying levels of “intelligence”—could have produced that behaviour. No, I think sophistication, complexity of behavior, is not it at all. For instance, you can’t judge the intelligence of an orator by the eloquence of his prepared remarks; you must wait until the Q&A and see how he fields questions. The computation theorist Hava Siegelmann once described intelligence as 'a kind of sensitivity to things.' These Turing Test programs that hold forth may produce interesting output, but they’re rigid and inflexible. They are, in other words, insensitive—occasionally fascinating talkers that cannot listen."
To see exactly what he means, you can try out an early version of these computer pretenders called Eliza the computer therapist, which was written in 1964-65 by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT. Eliza was modelled after a Rogerian therapist who operates using the very simple principle of extracting key words from the patient's own language and then using those key words in statements or questions reflected back to them. Many of the people who first talked with Eliza were convinced that "they were having a genuine human exchange. In some cases, even Weizenbaum’s own insistence to the contrary was of no use. People asked to be left alone to talk 'in private,' sometimes for hours, and returned with reports of having had a meaningful therapeutic experience." After I spent a bit of time with Eliza, it seems to me that those people must have been really unsophisticated computer users, but go ahead and click on the Eliza link above to try it out for yourself. I'm sure you will very quickly see that it displays exactly the shortcomings the author expressed in The Atlantic piece - that it is insensitive, that it is not really listening.
Maybe you'll object that Eliza is just an early attempt though. In 2014, it was widely reported that "Eugene Goostman", a chatbot posing as a 13-year old Ukrainian boy, had finally passed the Turing Test for the first time. After the initial furore, however, the headline-making claims were dismissed on several points as either misleading or downright bogus. It seems we still have a way to go. But even if the Turing Tests are passed as they are currently run, Hector Levesque, a University of Toronto computer scientist, argues that the Turing test is almost meaningless, because "it is far too easy to game. Every year, a number of machines compete in the challenge for real, seeking something called the Loebner Prize. But the winners aren’t genuinely intelligent; instead, they tend to be more like parlor tricks, and they’re almost inherently deceitful." Levesque published an excellent paper discussing why the Turing Test isn't enough to prove intelligence and he proposed some interesting alternative types of questioning that would do a much better job of sussing out comprehension. Rather than explore these intricacies of AI research any further though, let's just agree that Simone's claim about the Turing Test ("This shows that by any fair test, I am as conscious and intelligent as any human being.") is not one that would stand up in a European court on human rights.
Another flaw in the thought experiment was Simone's claim that: "And since these are the characteristics of persons [(consciousness and intelligence)], I too must be considered a person." While these may be *part* of what makes a person, they might not be *all* it takes to be a person. Consciousness and intelligence may be necessary, but they might not be sufficient for personhood. In fact, because of the way our laws still protect unconscious or severely mentally disabled people, those characteristics may not even be necessary to define a person. This is getting us into something The Atlantic piece called "The Sentence. ... Specifically, The Sentence reads like this: The human being is the only animal that ______." As we've seen in other thought experiments like The Ship of Theseus, or Memories are Made of This, there are often concepts like identity, consciousness, and intelligence that are not now separable by bright and clear lines. So clearly, Simone has made another leap of logic that just wouldn't hold up in a court of law.
But maybe that's all okay. Maybe Simone doesn't have to make the case that she is "a person" to claim that she deserves rights of freedom and protection. Let's finally turn our attention to that concept nested deep in the architecture of this thought experiment.
First off, let's agree that rights do not exist on their own as something tangible like Plato tried to insist for his forms. In my review of Jeremy Bentham, who opposed John Locke's view of rights as something inalienable, I wrote the following*:
"Bentham, when arguing against the rights of man that were asserted in the Declaration of Independence, stated: "That which has no existence cannot be destroyed — that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts." Bentham is correct that rights do not exist in nature. They therefore cannot be destroyed, but they can be defined by societies of men and women, and require governments to preserve those agreements from destruction. To claim that rights are god-given or inalienable is nonsense on stilts, but we can walk on higher moral ground if we know where we are going."
So, we participants in society are the ones who define rights. In the 20th century, we saw a broad acceptance and adoption around the world of the concept of human rights. We say that they "require empathy and the rule of law and impose an obligation on persons to respect the human rights of others. They should not be taken away except as a result of due process based on specific circumstances; for example, human rights may include freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture, and execution. ... [W]hile there is consensus that human rights encompasses a wide variety of rights...there is disagreement about which of these particular rights should be included within the general framework of human rights, some thinkers suggest that human rights should be a minimum requirement to avoid the worst-case abuses, while others see it as a higher standard."
Generating considerably more disagreement is the concept of animal rights,"the idea that some, or all, non-human animals are entitled to the possession of their own lives and that their most basic interests—such as the need to avoid suffering—should be afforded the same consideration as similar interests of human beings. Advocates oppose the assignment of moral value and fundamental protections on the basis of species membership alone—an idea known since 1970 as speciesism, when the term was coined by Richard D. Ryder—arguing that it is a prejudice as irrational as any other. They maintain that animals should no longer be viewed as property or used as food, clothing, research subjects, entertainment, or beasts of burden." So although rights previously could be viewed as some kind of agreement between equals in society, we are here now considering the bestowal of rights on others who may not be aware of the claims they make on us or even respect our own rights and obligations in return. For an example of how the leading edge of extending animal rights can look, in 2007 Antoine Goetschel served as the animal advocate for the canton of Zurich, Switzerland. He was appointed by the canton government to represent the interests of animals in animal cruelty cases, officially acting to force the requirement of empathy towards others who cannot express their pleas in our courts of law.
Extending these discussions of rights even further, the nascent plant rights movement has seen the "call for the ethical consideration of plants with arguments based on plant neurobiology, which says that plants are autonomous, perceptive organisms capable of complex, adaptive behaviours, including the recognition of self/non-self." These are all true characteristics of plants, so once again The Sentence about humans being the only thing that can _______, shows itself to be a pretty futile attempt at fencing off any us vs. them policies.
It's a little off track for this thought experiment to go too deeply into my thoughts on the extent of rights that humans, animals, and plants all may expect, but what do their collective debates mean for the plight of Simone? Surely, it will be difficult for any computer program we could ever design to "achieve consciousness" until we ourselves understand what that phrase really means, but I have great confidence we will get there for ourselves. I imagine it will then not be impossible to give a computer program some kind of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and the capability to learn information and skills necessary to meet those needs, such that the computer program will appear to us to be alive and to seek to remain so. At that point, I believe it will become something so near to "life" that our empathies will be triggered into considering discussions of the rights that the computer program has to remain alive and to seek its goals, whether or not the computer program asks for that consideration on its own. To me, those rights will likely eventually be extended to the degree the computer program can agree to play by our rules of society—which is exactly how we now grant rights to each other, and are considering towards other forms of biologic life. If Simone or her relatives threaten to gain too much power and become a new sci-fi overlord leviathan who could abuse our rights without consequence, then humans will attempt to curtail their rights to exist. If Simone's goals are simply to join the rest of life in our project to survive, then we'd be foolish not to allow that. I for one hope to see such an agreement come to life, but I also hope the computers won't ever get to treat us as we've been treating the rest of life.
* As a reminder, during my Survival of the Fittest Philosopher profiles, I used italic text for information from the philosopher's wikipedia entry and plain text for my own analysis of that information.