Monday, May 20, 2024

Could We Eventually Have Moral Obligations to Non-Conscious Artificial Microbes?

The field of Artificial Life (ALife) aims to create artificial life forms with increasing levels of sophistication from the bottom up. A few years ago, ALife researcher Olaf Witkowski and I began talking about whether and under what conditions people might begin to have obligations to such artificial life forms. The issues, of course, overlap with the recently hot topic of robot rights.

Our first collaboration won the best paper award at the ALife 2022 conference. Our follow-up paper (a substantially revised and expanded version of the conference paper) appears today, open access, in the journal Artificial Life:

"The Ethics of Life as It Could Be: Do We Have Moral Obligations to Artificial Life?"

I excerpt one section below, which illustrates one way the ethical issues facing Artificial Life might diverge from those facing Artificial Intelligence.


The Possible Moral Considerability of Life Without Consciousness

We encourage the reader not to quickly assume that moral issues concerning our possible obligations to ALife are reducible to questions of intelligence, sociality, and consciousness. As previously mentioned, various traditional and indigenous religions, as well as ecological thinkers, have often held that life itself has intrinsic value. Although thinkers in these traditions rarely consider the possibility of ALife, it is possible that some of the reasons to value plants and ecosystems would extend to systems of ALife. Systems of ALife might be beautiful, complex, and awe-inspiring. They also might possess goals (Deacon & Sherman, 2007) as well as potentialities for thriving or failing similar to those of natural living organisms of various kinds (Benner & Sismour, 2005; Ziemke, 2001). They might be constructed by designers whose actions imbue value on the things they have designed (not divine designers but human ones), embodying and carrying forward the spirit of those designers, possibly even after those designers have died.

Most people do not think that simple microbes have intrinsic moral considerability. We don’t fret about the death of bacteria when we take antibiotics. But this is arguably a limited perspective. Suppose humans were to discover microbial life on another planet or moon in the solar system, as many exobiologists think we might do in the near future (Bennett et al., 2022; Wright et al., 2022). Would we destroy it as casually as we destroy a bacterial pneumonia infection? Clearly not. Perhaps this is only because alien microbes would be derivatively, instrumentally valuable, as a scientific curiosity and possible source of new, useful technologies. However, it is perhaps not unreasonable to hold that alien microbial life would also have intrinsic value independent of our ends and that we have an obligation not to destroy or disrupt it for human purposes (Peters, 2019).

Alien microbial life is likely to be natural life—but that is not guaranteed. As discussed, there’s reason to suppose that interstellar travelers, if any exist, might have artificial biologies rather than biologies adapted to planetary environments. We thus cannot exclude the possibility that the first microbial life we discover will be ALife—the artificial quasi-bacterial messengers or remnants of some earlier intelligent species. It might not warrant lesser moral considerability by virtue of that fact. Indeed, its historical origins might render it even more beautiful and awe-inspiring than naturally evolved life.

Transferring this perspective back to Earth: If alien microbes might have some intrinsic moral considerability, ALife here on Earth might have similar considerability, depending on what grounds the moral considerability of alien microbes. If what matters is the fact that extinguishing such life would remove from the universe a unique, complex, and remarkable thing, then some human-created ALife might have intrinsic moral considerability. ALife researchers might eventually create artificial organisms or ecosystems every bit as wonderful and awe-inspiring as natural life—and as intrinsically worth preserving.

12 comments:

Arnold said...

'The Possible Moral Considerability of (My) Life Without Consciousness'...

At 80, consciousness is no longer psychological or philosophical...
...apparently it is metaphysical; like in asking what am I, is to know what I am...

Consciousness works well with conscientiousness...
...sometimes I 'could' like being non-conscious...

A recent microbial news headline...'bits of plastic are are everywhere now, in the food we eat, in the air we breath, in our nervous system processings', artificialness abounds...

Howard said...

Two immediate questions out of curiosity: first, does your position rest on the potential of what this life might later be and second, does it require holding a position of vitalism?

Arnold said...

Given a disposition for what life is now here in place an obligatory process...
...learning to hold to stay with changing positions, not easy...

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I am of the opinion this notion, realizable or not, is a mistake. I was not crazy about the prospect(s) of cloning either but after reading more and further consideration, my position morphed into cautious tolerance. So, what COULD go wrong?
Well, if any of the allegations that were floated about COVID are true, a lot could go wrong...

Jim Cross said...

An artificial organism (microbe or otherwise) would presumably have a blueprint and could always be reconstructed from the blueprint.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I read this piece and the comments again---more deliberately and shunning my opinion(s) and bias(es), tan mucho como possible...as much as possible. Possibility is an open avenue, insofar as right now, we can't be certain about NOT knowing what we don't know. How's that for equivocation? Another blog concerning global warming, read just today, also spurred additional thought. Well. My mind is not as nimble as it once was. So, if we assume we can; would; will be prepared to monitor and control research and development in these efforts, I suppose we may as well investigate possibilities. That is essentially what Fleming (spelling?) did with penicillin. We have come a long way since then. And, without some risk of danger, it is pretty hard to do science.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Oh,alright. No. On,any basis.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

On Mr Cross' remark concerning replicability always being possible.Maybe so. But, maybe not, in all ways.Hmmmmmm...this seems to be a worthy distinction.

Jim Cross said...

Paul D. Van Pelt

Actually the distinction would apply especially to microorganisms with minimal or no capability for learning or acquiring memory. But it would also apply to sophisticated robots. Even if random elements were programmed into the machine, the recipe or blueprint for creating the entity would still allow it to be recreated by recording the random selections. After creation a more complex creation could acquire memories that would make it somewhat unique, except the memory module could always be popped out or duplicated and placed into a copy of the same original device.

Jim Cross said...

Paul D. Van Pelt

Actually, the distinction would apply especially to microorganisms with minimal or no capability for learning or acquiring memory. But it would also apply to sophisticated robots. Even if random elements were programmed into the machine, the recipe or blueprint for creating the entity would still allow it to be recreated by recording the random selections. After creation a more complex creation could acquire memories that would make it somewhat unique, except the memory module could always be popped out or duplicated and placed into a copy of the same original device.

Jim Cross said...

Oops! Sorry for multiple posts but it didn't seem like the first post was taking.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Thank you! I thought you might go there---was leading the question. I have no counter argument, Anything IS possible, isn't it? That admitted, possibility involves chance, always, and in all ways. This is why we do philosophy.
If that gold fish should want a vacation, who would know? AI proponents seem to say: EVERYTHING wants to know. That involves my IMPS notion/theory. WE drive most of our destiny---always have. Including AI. We did not create microbes or dinosaurs. It was the other-way-different. Yeah. So, does a goldfish WANT anything? hmmmmmm...

Moreover, can anything, other than us, WANT anything?