How human can a robot be?
by John Haldane
The rise of artificial intelligence and robotics raises fundamental questions about the nature of the human person, as a philosopher and member of Pontifical Academy for Life, explains
Recently I reflected on aspects of the human form and human identity, as these were the focus of an exhibition at the National Gallery of the renaissance artists Bellini and Mantegna and of contemporary geneticists – the latter in light of the announcement that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, had used gene-editing to alter the DNA of a number of embryos leading to the birth of twin girls.
I wrote that gene manipulation may have unpredicted effects, and subsequent reports testify to this in unexpected ways. One side-effect of He Jiankui’s effort to render the girls immune to HIV is that they may have enhanced brain function, leading to greater powers of cognition and memory. He Jiankui has been dismissed from his university post, and may face criminal charges of bribery and corruption. His life-enhancing initiative may prove seriously life-diminishing for him.
With that irony left unresolved, I return to the way artists and scientists explore what it means to be human. A brisk ten-minute walk from the National Gallery takes you to the Royal Academy on Piccadilly, where Michelangelo drawings are being shown beside Bill Viola videos of generally naked human bodies being doused with water, or diving or falling into it, plus scenes of birth, death and physical self-examination. Beyond the diversity of viewer interest, there is another contrast, that of perception.
My own experience, and I imagine that of many others, was of two parallel exhibitions, requiring two very different kinds of attitude and attention, as if switching from theatre to television or from a concert to a recording. And however much posture or gesture Michelangelo is able to convey, given the nature of his medium, he is always capturing or imagining moments, while Viola is using high-definition video cameras to record and manipulate processes.
What comes through in both cases, however, is the power of concentrated attention to the human body, drawn or filmed, to induce a sense of humanity. This is puzzling, and resolving the puzzle offers insights. How do mere marks or patches of light and dark not only depict or represent but express human life? In the case of film, the answer seems obvious: it is just a recording of the facts, be it a crafted one; but that deepens the puzzle about the case of drawings, which are entirely the work of the artist. Herein lies the answer: a drawing of the human is doubly expressive, as the draughtsman communicates his or her humanity through the medium of chalk, charcoal or crayon in capturing the humanity of the real or imagined subject expressed through posture or gesture. This latter, however, is a secondary case of expression deriving from the primary form exemplified by actual human beings, be they the artists or their models.
Wittgenstein, in the work published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations, writes that, “only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious … Only of what behaves like a human being can one say that it has pains. For one has to say it of a body, or, if you like, of a soul which some body has. And how can a body have a soul? … Think of the recognition of facial expressions. Or of the description of facial expressions.” In their different ways, Michelangelo and Viola show in their depictions of animated bodies aspects of the human soul, not only the fact of its existence but its nature as a distinctive form of life.
Thoughts of Michelangelo and Wittgenstein were in my mind when, a week after seeing the London exhibition, I made my way through the Swiss Guard checkpoint at the Petrian Gate towards the New Synod Hall, where the meeting of bishops convened to discuss the sexual abuse issue had given way to the 25th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life. In 2017, Pope Francis approved new statutes for the Academy and appointed as its new president Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. Some prominent members were not reappointed and new ones were included whose pro-life stance was partial.
I was one of those who survived the reshuffle, leading some friends to wonder if my ideological disposition had shifted, such is the current atmosphere of suspicion.
Perhaps in an effort to avoid controversies about beginning and end-of-life issues, the theme of the assembly was “Roboethics: Humans, Machines and Health”. It featured presentations from computer scientists, ethicists, robotics engineers, technologists and theologians. The latter generally reminded us of the traditional Christian emphasis on the dignity of the human person, but without rigorous analysis and defence, “human dignity” is in danger of becoming a vacuous cliché. It needs to be given more determinate content and the range of its implications made more explicit.
Robotics raises important ethical questions, including the way the growing presence of robotic operators bears upon human needs, not just material but personal and social. Some of the issues we addressed are akin to those posed by the industrial revolution, principally the threat to employment. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has suggested that in developed countries 66 million jobs could be lost through robotic automation, with low-skilled and younger people being most vulnerable; but there is also scope for new forms of manufacturing and service work to be created involving human-robot “co-operation”.
We also discussed the potential for robotic surgery and other activities requiring high levels of perception, dexterity and delicate manipulation. Artificial intelligence and robotics allow for precise monitoring of physical conditions, diagnosis, and treatment. Beyond these technical matters there is the intriguing possibility of assistance and even companionship being provided to human beings, particularly in the early and later stages of life.
Lower birth rates, rising longevity and changing patterns of family and work life, are leading to a decline in nurturing and care-giving within the home, and to pressure on schools, hospitals and care services. Socially Assistive Robots (SARs) could be used in toy and animal figures to assist with early childhood education, or in friendly-faced humanoids or pets assisting the elderly. Yale and other universities are already experimenting with the former and there is a fast growing literature addressing the latter. This, however, is where things begin to become murky. There are the usual issues to do with safety and control, but there is also a problem in substituting machine for human interaction. Even if well-intentioned, the provision of a machine is no substitute for personal care and attention. More fundamentally, there is the issue of losing a sense of the human as such.
Here I return to Michelangelo and Viola. What is it to be a human and to recognise and express humanity? When pressed on the development of humanoid robots and their nature one of the invited outside speakers replied: “What is a human being? We don’t have definition of that.” But we do. It derives from the first great work on the nature of living things, Aristotle’s De Anima, written almost two-and-a-half-thousand years ago. He speaks of three levels of animation: vegetative, sentient and rational; as the old Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: “Man is a substance, corporeal, living, sentient and rational.”
This definition of human nature insists upon our animality. We are not minds in bodies but minded bodies. And rationality is more than just logic or cognition; it includes emotion, imagination and will. Something to be added to the definition is that, while as bodily beings we are objects in the world, as minded beings we are also subjects, with a specific human perspective on ourselves and our fellows; a perspective marked by the use of “I”, “we” and “you” in contrast to “he”, “she” or “it”.
Thinking further, we can see that we have two kinds of personal knowledge: one that comes from observation of others and ourselves, and the other that comes with being a subject knowing directly and non-observationally what one is thinking and doing. Although these are distinct ways of knowing persons, they come together in mutual recognition when we look into the eyes of another and see them looking into us.
No doubt AI and robotics will continue to accelerate in their development. As they do, it will be tempting to substitute humanoids for human beings, and, as those machines are sheathed in the features of a human body and given a face, there will be an ever greater tendency to suspect that either they have come to life and consciousness or that we are robots, too. Both conclusions would be false and dangerous. Our lives are not calculated movement and activity computed from within our heads but fully expressive forms of intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and religious humanity. That is what, in their different ways, Michelangelo and Viola study and show us. If you want to know the difference between robots and human beings, look at expressions of anger and affection, conviction and doubt, hope and despair, love and lust. Then look into the eyes of a robot and ask: Is anyone there? The more we move into the world of science fiction the more we need to look at art and music to see and hear humanity. It might have been a good idea for one of our sessions to have been held in the Sistine Chapel, looking at Michelangelo’s ceiling and listening to Palestrina’s Stabat Mater.
John Haldane is a professor of philosophy at Baylor University, Texas, and at the University of St Andrews.