Friday, April 26, 2019

Animal Rights for Animal-Like AIs?

by John Basl and Eric Schwitzgebel

Universities across the world are conducting major research on artificial intelligence (AI), as are organisations such as the Allen Institute, and tech companies including Google and Facebook. A likely result is that we will soon have AI approximately as cognitively sophisticated as mice or dogs. Now is the time to start thinking about whether, and under what conditions, these AIs might deserve the ethical protections we typically give to animals.

Discussions of ‘AI rights’ or ‘robot rights’ have so far been dominated by questions of what ethical obligations we would have to an AI of humanlike or superior intelligence – such as the android Data from Star Trek or Dolores from Westworld. But to think this way is to start in the wrong place, and it could have grave moral consequences. Before we create an AI with humanlike sophistication deserving humanlike ethical consideration, we will very likely create an AI with less-than-human sophistication, deserving some less-than-human ethical consideration.

We are already very cautious in how we do research that uses certain nonhuman animals. Animal care and use committees evaluate research proposals to ensure that vertebrate animals are not needlessly killed or made to suffer unduly. If human stem cells or, especially, human brain cells are involved, the standards of oversight are even more rigorous. Biomedical research is carefully scrutinised, but AI research, which might entail some of the same ethical risks, is not currently scrutinised at all. Perhaps it should be.

You might think that AIs don’t deserve that sort of ethical protection unless they are conscious – that is, unless they have a genuine stream of experience, with real joy and suffering. We agree. But now we face a tricky philosophical question: how will we know when we have created something capable of joy and suffering? If the AI is like Data or Dolores, it can complain and defend itself, initiating a discussion of its rights. But if the AI is inarticulate, like a mouse or a dog, or if it is for some other reason unable to communicate its inner life to us, it might have no way to report that it is suffering.

A puzzle and difficulty arises here because the scientific study of consciousness has not reached a consensus about what consciousness is, and how we can tell whether or not it is present. On some views – ‘liberal’ views – for consciousness to exist requires nothing but a certain type of well-organised information-processing, such as a flexible informational model of the system in relation to objects in its environment, with guided attentional capacities and long-term action-planning. We might be on the verge of creating such systems already. On other views – ‘conservative’ views – consciousness might require very specific biological features, such as a brain very much like a mammal brain in its low-level structural details: in which case we are nowhere near creating artificial consciousness.

It is unclear which type of view is correct or whether some other explanation will in the end prevail. However, if a liberal view is correct, we might soon be creating many subhuman AIs who will deserve ethical protection. There lies the moral risk.

Discussions of ‘AI risk’ normally focus on the risks that new AI technologies might pose to us humans, such as taking over the world and destroying us, or at least gumming up our banking system. Much less discussed is the ethical risk we pose to the AIs, through our possible mistreatment of them.

This might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but insofar as researchers in the AI community aim to develop conscious AI or robust AI systems that might very well end up being conscious, we ought to take the matter seriously. Research of that sort demands ethical scrutiny similar to the scrutiny we already give to animal research and research on samples of human neural tissue.

In the case of research on animals and even on human subjects, appropriate protections were established only after serious ethical transgressions came to light (for example, in needless vivisections, the Nazi medical war crimes, and the Tuskegee syphilis study). With AI, we have a chance to do better. We propose the founding of oversight committees that evaluate cutting-edge AI research with these questions in mind. Such committees, much like animal care committees and stem-cell oversight committees, should be composed of a mix of scientists and non-scientists – AI designers, consciousness scientists, ethicists and interested community members. These committees will be tasked with identifying and evaluating the ethical risks of new forms of AI design, armed with a sophisticated understanding of the scientific and ethical issues, weighing the risks against the benefits of the research.

It is likely that such committees will judge all current AI research permissible. On most mainstream theories of consciousness, we are not yet creating AI with conscious experiences meriting ethical consideration. But we might – possibly soon – cross that crucial ethical line. We should be prepared for this.

[originally posted on Aeon Ideas]

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Contest Idea: Can You Write an Philosophical Argument That Convinces Research Participants to Give Some of Their Bonus Money to Charity?

In a series of studies supported by The Life You Can Save, Chris McVey and I have been showing research participants (mTurk workers) philosophical arguments for charitable giving. Other participants read narratives about children who were helped by charitable donations or (as a control condition) they read a middle-school physics textbook discussion of energy.

We then ask participants their attitudes about charitable giving and follow up with this question:

Upon completion of this study, 10% of participants will receive an additional $10. You have the option to donate some portion of this $10 to your choice among six well-known charities that have been shown to effectively fight suffering due to extreme poverty. If you are one of the recipients of the additional $10, the portion you decide to keep will appear as a bonus credited to your Mechanical Turk worker account, and the portion you decide to donate will be given to the charity you pick from the list below.

Note: You must pass the comprehension questions and show no signs of suspicious responding to receive the $10.  Receipt of the $10 is NOT conditional, however, on your attitudes toward charity, expressed on the previous page, nor on how much you choose to donate if you receive the $10.

If you are one of the recipients of the additional $10, how much of your additional $10 would you like to donate?

[response options are in dollar intervals from $0 to $10, followed by a list of six charities to choose among]

Our November 21 blog post "Narrative but Not Philosophical Argument Motivates Giving to Charity" describes some of our results. Short version: When presented with the narratives, participants choose to donate on average about $4.50 of their possible bonus. When presented with the physics text or the argument, they donate about a dollar less. We've tried varying the argument, to see if we can find a variation that statistically beats the control (with 100-200 participants per condition), but so far no luck.

This is where you come in. Maybe Chris and I are bad at writing convincing arguments! (Well, one argument we adapted from Matthew Lindauer and collaborators, in consultation with Peter Singer.) The philosophical community might be able to help us create a more effective argument.

So -- is this too goofy? -- I'm thinking that a contest might be fun. Write a philosophical argument (300-400 words) that actually leads mTurk participants to donate more of their bonus to charity than they do in the control condition. The prize might be $500 outright plus $500 to the winner's choice of an effective charity. If no one can create an argument that can beat the control condition, no winner; otherwise the winner is the author of the argument that generates the highest mean donation.

There would need to be some constraints: no use of narrative (personal or historical), no discussion of individual people who might be helped, no pictures, no highly emotionally charged content or vivid sensory detail. The argument shouldn't be obviously fallacious, foolish, or absurd. It ought to be something that a thoughtful philosopher could get behind as a reasonable argument. Statistics, empirical details, evidence of overall effectiveness, etc., are fine.

I'm open to suggestions about how best to administer such a contest, if I can find funding for it -- including thoughts about rules, parameters, the best statistical approach, what the prize should be, what to do if we receive too many submissions to run them all, etc. (I'm also open for funders to volunteer.)

Also, I'm definitely open to ideas about what features of an argument might make it effective or ineffective among ordinary readers, if you have thoughts about that but don't feel game to write up an argument.

[image source]

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Ethics in Publishing Philosophy

Tomorrow (Friday) afternoon from 1-4, I'll be a panelist in a session on "Publishing Ethics in Philosophy" at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Vancouver. Come by if you're in town!

I'll have ten minutes to say a few things, before the session moves on to other panelists and then (hopefully) lots of discussion. I figure ten minutes is time enough to express three ideas. So... what three points should I make? What issues deserve special emphasis in a forum of this sort? Here are my thoughts:

Journal and Monograph Response Times

If the following three conditions all hold at a journal or academic press, there's cause for concern that that publisher's policies are impeding authors' timely publication of their work and progress in their careers:

(1.) The journal or press does not accept simultaneous submissions (that is, there's an expectation that while the author's work is being considered there it is not also being considered elsewhere).

(2.) The journal accepts 20% or fewer of submissions.

(3.) The median response time for a decision is six months or more.

As we all know, publishable-quality material stands a substantial chance of being rejected for a variety of reasons, including fit with the journal's vision or the vision of the monograph series, the very high selectivity of some venues that leads them to reject much material that they believe is of publishable quality, and chance in the refereeing process. For these reasons, it often takes five or more rejections before publishable-quality work finds a home. If venues are taking six months or more to respond, that can mean three or more years between first submission and final acceptance. That's too long for authors to wait -- especially graduate student authors and untenured faculty.

Ideally, response times could be ten weeks or less. I don't think that's unattainable with good organization. But if a press or journal can't attain that, they ought to consider either allowing simultaneous submissions or increasing their acceptance rates.

Journal Pricing

It's not news to people in academia that some journals charge libraries very hefty subscription fees. The University of California system (UC Berkeley, UCLA, and eight other campuses including my own campus, UC Riverside, plus medical centers and national laboratories) recently cancelled its subscription to Elsevier journals, which was costing the system eleven million dollars a year, about 25% of the university's total journal budget. There's a huge difference in journal pricing, with some high quality journals charging a few hundred dollars a year while other journals, not appreciably better in any way, charge ten times as much for similar services -- with Elsevier and Springer maybe being the worst offenders.

I looked up the institutional subscription price in US dollars for print and online access to the top twenty "best 'general' journals of philosophy" in a recent poll by Brian Leiter:

  • 1. Philosophical Review (Duke University Press), $264/year (4 issues, 561 pages).
  • 2. Mind (Oxford Academic), $430 (4 issues, 1270 pages).
  • 3. Nous (Wiley), $1532 (4 issues, 981 pages).
  • 4. Journal of Philosophy, $250 (12 issues, 684 pages).
  • 5. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Wiley), $385 (6 issues, 1594 pages).
  • 6. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, (Taylor & Francis) $509 (4 issues, 838 pages) [Updated: thanks, Neil!].
  • 7. Philosophers' Imprint (hosted by University of Michigan), free open access ($20 recommended fee to submit an article for review; 25 individual articles).
  • 8. Philosophical Studies (Springer), $3171 (17 issues, 4627 pages).
  • 9. Philosophical Quarterly (Oxford), $799 (4 issues, 874 pages).
  • 10. Analysis (Oxford). $288 (4 issues, 784 pages).
  • 11. Synthese (Springer), $4830 (12 issues, 5594 pages).
  • 12. Canadian Journal of Philosophy (Taylor & Francis), $446 (6 issues, 899 pages).
  • 13. Erkenntnis (Springer), $1802 (6 issues, 1320 pages).
  • 14. American Philosophical Quarterly (University of Illinois), $397 (4 issues, approx 420 pages).
  • 15. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly (Wiley), $764 (4 issues, 909 pages).
  • 16. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Oxford), $343 (3 issues, 428 pages).
  • 17. Ergo (hosted by University of Toronto): free open access (41 individual articles).
  • 18. European Journal of Philosophy (Wiley): $1446 (4 issues, 1457 pages).
  • 19. Journal of the American Philosophical Association (Cambridge University): Only available to institutions as part of a large subscription package.
  • 20. Thought (Wiley), $400-$741 (online only; 4 issues, 295 pages).
  • I am not aware of any good reason that Synthese should be almost $5000 a year, while other journals of similar quality are a few hundred dollars. The best explanation, I suspect, is that Springer, as a for-profit company, is taking advantage of inelastic institutional demand for the journal by institutions that want to ensure that they have access to the best-known philosophy journals. It is, I think, contrary to the general interests of academics and the public for Springer and other such companies to charge so much, so some collective resistance might be desirable.

    I recommend that editors, referees, and authors consider journal pricing as one factor in their decisions about serving in editorial roles, refereeing roles, and in choosing where to submit, giving default preference to open-access journals and reasonably priced journals over expensive journals when other factors are approximately equal.

    Responsible Citation Practice

    Increasingly, citation is the currency of academic prestige. People decide what to read based, partly, in what is being cited by others. High citation rates can figure prominently in hiring and tenure decisions. Highly cited authors are generally considered to be experts in their subfields.

    Thus, I think it is important that authors thoroughly review the recent literature on their topic to ensure that they are citing a good selection of recent sources, especially sources by junior authors and lesser-known authors. It is easy -- especially if you are a well-known author, and especially in invited contributions -- to cite the famous people in your subfield and the people whose work you happen to know through existing academic connections. This is not entirely academically responsible, and it can have the effect of illegitimately excluding from the conversation good work by people who are not as academically well connected.

    Citation practice is primarily the responsibility of authors -- but referees and editors might also want to consider this issue in evaluating submitted work.

    Comments/suggestions/reactions welcome -- especially before 1:00 pm tomorrow!

    [image source]

    Tuesday, April 09, 2019

    Tell Us How to Fix the Lack of Diversity in Philosophy Departments

    by Sherri Conklin, Eric Schwitzgebel, and Nicole Hassoun.

    [cross-posted at the Blog of the APA]

    Philosophy needs to diversify. Come join us at the Pacific Division meeting to tell us what departments can do to improve. Join the Demographics in Philosophy Project to help bend the long arc of history towards justice.

    First, some data

    A growing body of research shows that while the proportions of women philosophy faculty are increasing over time, women still only account for 25% of all philosophy faculty in the U.S. (Conklin, Artamonova, and Hassoun 2019; see also Black philosophers account for only about 1-4% of all philosophy faculty (Botts et al. 2014). And disabled philosophers are underrepresented as well (Tremain 2014).

    These groups’ disproportionately low authorship rates in philosophy journals may partially explain the faculty findings – especially if failure to publish leads to a failure to gain employment, tenure, and promotion (Wilhelm, Conklin, and Hassoun 2017). For example, only 13% of publications in top philosophy journals are by women (Schwitzgebel and Jennings 2017), and fewer than 1% of authors in top journals are Black (Bright 2016).

    Another possible explanation concerns the “pipeline” into philosophy. For example, women and Black philosophers receive only about 32% and 5% of undergraduate philosophy degrees in the U.S. (Schwitzgebel 2017a, 2017b) and about 29% and 2% of PhDs (Schwitzgebel 2016). (Systematic data on other groups that are likely to be underrepresented are more difficult to obtain). Possibly, something about how philosophy is taught or how it is perceived in U.S. culture substantially influences the demographics of the major (Garfield and Van Norden 2016; Thompson et al. 2016).

    This is a problem from an epistemic point of view: Philosophy as a discipline profits from hearing voices from a variety of different backgrounds. Furthermore, to the extent that unfair exclusionary practices, whether implicit or explicit, may be limiting people’s career choices, it is a problem of social justice.

    Disciplinary initiatives to combat the disparities

    Much has been done to combat the observed disparities. The British Philosophical Association, in collaboration with the Society for Women in Philosophy-UK, launched a Best Practices Scheme for improving departmental climates for women. The APA introduced a new initiative to diversify course syllabi through the Diversity and Inclusiveness Syllabus Collection. A number of philosophy diversity institutes were launched to help attract marginalized undergraduates to apply to graduate school. These programs include PikSi, UCSD SPWP, and COMPASS (among others – see the APA resource page on Undergraduate Diversity Institutes in Philosophy). Graduate students founded Minorities in Philosophy to promote student initiated change (

    In addition, the Demographics in Philosophy Project collates and collects data to document the problem of marginalization in professional philosophy and to identify tools for counteracting it. In 2018, we initiated a broadly consultative project to identify inclusive practices for philosophy journals, beginning with a session on inclusive practices at the Pacific Division meeting of the APA and a series of blog posts from editors of leading journals (Hassoun, Schwitzgebel, and Smith 2018; Kukla 2018; Bilimoria 2018; Hetherington 2018; Hansson 2018; Moore and O’Brien 2018) and culminating in a list of potential best practices, posted here on the Blog of the APA (Conklin, Hassoun, Schwitzgebel 2018).

    But what can departments do to combat the disparities directly?

    Tell us how to fix the problem:

    We have some preliminary ideas about how to improve the situation, but we want to hear from you. We would like to identify concrete suggestions for specific practices that can be implemented by departments to improve diversity without compromising their other goals. We are especially interested in hearing about successful practices.

    Give us your suggestions. Raise objections and concerns. Email us. And, if you’re in the area at the time, please come to our session on this topic at the Pacific APA meeting in Vancouver on April 18 (1-4pm). The session will start with a brief presentation on diversity in philosophy departments, but it will mostly consist of open discussion with a panel of representatives from sixteen well-regarded philosophy departments, who will bring their experience to the question as well as, we suspect, in some cases, their strenuous disagreement.

    After the session, we hope to partner with departments to collect more data on what works to improve diversity and to develop a toolbox of helpful practices.

    Suggestions, objections, and contributions welcome at More data on women in philosophy are available here:

    Follow us on Twitter @PhilosophyData and Facebook

    Session details:

    Diversity in Philosophy Departments
    Pacific APA, Vancouver
    April 18, 2018, 9:00–12:00 a.m.
    APA Committee Session:
    Arranged by the APA Committee on the Status of Women

    Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California, Riverside)

    Nicole Hassoun (Binghamton University)
    Sherri Conklin (University of California, Santa Barbara)
    Purushottama Bilimoria (University of California, Berkeley and University of Melbourne)
    Teresa Blankmeyer Burke (Gallaudet University)
    Leslie Pickering Francis (University of Utah)
    Subrena Smith (University of New Hampshire)

    David Chalmers (New York University)
    Andrew Chignell (Princeton University)
    Helen De Cruz (Oxford Brookes University)
    Steve Downes (University of Utah)
    Carrie Figdor (University of Iowa)
    John Lysaker (Emory University)
    Anna-Sara Malmgren (Stanford University)
    Wolfgang R. Mann (Columbia University)
    Ned Markosian (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
    Gregory R. Peterson (South Dakota State University)
    Geoff Sayre-McCord (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
    Miriam Solomon (Temple University)
    Yannik Thiem (Villanova University)
    Daniela Vallega-Neu (University of Oregon)
    Eric Watkins (University of California, San Diego)
    Andrea Woody (University of Washington)

    Thanks to Kathryn Norlock and Michael Rea for help with this project.

    [image source]

    Monday, April 08, 2019

    Forthcoming: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures

    My forthcoming book has a page now at MIT Press:

    A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures

    A collection of quirky, entertaining, and reader-friendly short pieces on philosophical topics that range from a theory of jerks to the ethics of ethicists.

    Have you ever wondered about why some people are jerks? Asked whether your driverless car should kill you so that others may live? Found a robot adorable? Considered the ethics of professional ethicists? Reflected on the philosophy of hair? In this engaging, entertaining, and enlightening book, Eric Schwitzgebel turns a philosopher's eye on these and other burning questions. In a series of quirky and accessible short pieces that cover a mind-boggling variety of philosophical topics, Schwitzgebel offers incisive takes on matters both small (the consciousness of garden snails) and large (time, space, and causation).

    A common theme might be the ragged edge of the human intellect, where moral or philosophical reflection begins to turn against itself, lost among doubts and improbable conclusions. The history of philosophy is humbling when we see how badly wrong previous thinkers have been, despite their intellectual skills and confidence. (See, for example, “Kant on Killing Bastards, Masturbation, Organ Donation, Homosexuality, Tyrants, Wives, and Servants.”) Some of the texts resist thematic categorization—thoughts on the philosophical implications of dreidels, the diminishing offensiveness of the most profane profanity, and fatherly optimism—but are no less interesting.

    Schwitzgebel has selected these pieces from the more than one thousand that have appeared since 2006 in various publications and on his popular blog, The Splintered Mind, revising and updating them for this book. Philosophy has never been this much fun.

    Tuesday, April 02, 2019

    Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird

    I have a new SF story in Clarkesworld, "Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird" -- my first new fiction publication since 2017. I wanted to tell a tale in which none of the protagonists are conscious but we care about them anyway -- an interplanetary probe (with some chat algorithms and cute subroutines) and its stuffed monkey doll.

    Another theme is what counts as the extinction or continuation of a sapient species.


    Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird

    by Eric Schwitzgebel

    First, an eye. The camera rose, swiveling on its joint, compiling initial scans of the planetary surface. Second, six wheels on struts, pop-pop, pop-pop, pop-pop, and a platform unfolding between the main body and the eye. Third, an atmospheric taster and wind gauge. Fourth, a robotic arm. The arm emerged holding a fluffy, resilient, nanocarbon monkey doll, which it carefully set on the platform.

    The monkey doll had no actuators, no servos, no sensors, no cognitive processors. Monkey was, however, quite huggable. Monkey lay on his back on the warm platform, his black bead eyes pointed up toward the stars. He had traveled wadded near J11-L’s core for ninety-five thousand years. His arms, legs, and tail lay open and relaxed for the first time since his hurried manufacture.

    J11-L sprouted more eyes, more arms, more gauges—also stabilizers, ears, a scoop, solar panels, soil sensors, magnetic whirligigs. Always, J11-L observed Monkey more closely than anything else, leaning its eyes and gauges in.

    J11-L arranged Monkey’s limbs on the platform, gently flexing and massaging the doll. J11-L scooped up a smooth stone from near its left front wheel, brushed it clean, then wedged it under Monkey’s head to serve as a pillow. J11-L stroked and smoothed Monkey’s fur, which was rumpled from the long journey.

    “I love you, Monkey,” emitted J11-L, in a sound resembling language. “Will you stay with me while I build a Home?”

    Monkey did not reply.

    [story continues here]