A couple of years ago, I saw the ASIMO show at Disneyland. ASIMO is a robot designed by Honda to walk bipedally with something like the human gait. I'd entered the auditorium with a somewhat negative attitude about ASIMO, having read Andy Clark's critique of Honda's computationally-heavy approach to robotic locomotion (fuller treatment here); and the animatronic Mr. Lincoln is no great shakes.
But ASIMO is cute! He's about four feet tall, humanoid, with big round dark eyes inside what looks a bit like an astronaut's helmet. He talks, he dances, he kicks soccer balls, he makes funny hand gestures. On the Disneyland stage, he keeps up a fun patter with a human actor. ASIMO's gait isn't quite human, but his nervous-looking crouching run only makes him that much cuter. By the end of the show I thought that if you gave me a shotgun and told me to blow off ASIMO's head, I'd be very reluctant to do so. (In contrast, I might quite enjoy taking a shotgun to my darn glitchy laptop.)
Another case: ELIZA was a simple computer program written in the 1960s that would chat with a user, using a small template of pre-programmed responses to imitate a non-directive psychotherapist (“Are such questions on your mind often?”, “Tell me more about your mother.”) Apparently, some users mistook it for human and spent long periods chatting with it.
I assume that ASIMO and ELIZA are not proper targets of substantial moral concern. They have no more consciousness than a laptop computer, no more capacity for genuine joy and suffering. However, because they share some of the superficial features of human beings, people might come improperly to regard them as targets of moral concern. And future engineers could presumably create entities with an even better repertoire of superficial tricks. Discussing this issue with my sister, she mentioned a friend who had been designing a laptop that would scream and cry when its battery runs low. Imagine that!
Conversely, suppose that it's someday possible to create an Artificial Intelligence so advanced that it has genuine consciousness, a genuine sense of self, real joy, and real suffering. If that AI also happens to be ugly or boxy or poorly interfaced, it might tend to attract less moral concern than is warranted.
Thus, our emotional responses to AIs might be misaligned with the moral status of those AIs, due to superficial features that are out of step with the AI's real cognitive and emotional capacities.
In the Star Trek episode "The Measure of a Man", a scientist who wants to disassemble the humanoid robot Data (sympathetically portrayed by a human actor) says of the robot, "If it were a box on wheels, I would not be facing this opposition." He also points out that people normally think nothing of upgrading the computer systems of a starship, though that means discarding a highly intelligent AI.
I have a cute stuffed teddy bear I bring to my philosophy of mind class on the day devoted to animal minds. Students scream in shock when without warning in the middle of the class, I suddenly punch the teddy bear in the face.
Evidence from developmental and social psychology suggests that we are swift to attribute mental states to entities with eyes and movement patterns that look goal directed, much slower to attribute mentality to eyeless entities with inertial movement patterns. But of course such superficial features needn’t track underlying mentality very well in AI cases.
Call this the ASIMO Problem.
I draw two main lessons from the ASIMO Problem.
First is a methodological lesson: In thinking about the moral status of AI, we should be careful not to overweight emotional reactions and intuitive judgments that might be driven by such superficial features. Low-quality science fiction -- especially low-quality science fiction films and television -- does often rely on audience reaction to such superficial features. However, thoughtful science fiction sometimes challenges or even inverts these reactions.
The second lesson is a bit of AI design advice. As responsible creators of artificial entities, we should want people to neither over- nor under-attribute moral status to the entities with which they interact. Thus, we should generally try to avoid designing entities that don’t deserve moral consideration but to which normal users are nonetheless inclined to give substantial moral consideration. This might be especially important in the design of children’s toys: Manufacturers might understandably be tempted to create artificial pets or friends that children will love and attach to -- but we presumably don’t want children to attach to a non-conscious toy instead of to parents or siblings. Nor do we presumably want to invite situations in which users might choose to save an endangered toy over an an endangered human being!
On the other hand, if we do someday create genuinely human-grade AIs who merit substantial moral concern, it would probably be advisable to design them in a way that would evoke the proper range of moral emotional responses from normal users.
We should embrace an Emotional Alignment Design Policy: Design the superficial features of AIs in such a way that they evoke the moral emotional reactions are appropriate to the real moral status of the AI, whatever it is, neither more nor less.