Artificial Intelligence and the Search for a Better World

As technology continues to advance, a series of important philosophical considerations arise surrounding the moral use of the tools we construct. Of these constructs, none raises more interesting and pertinent questions than artificial intelligence (AI). As we increasingly make use of AI in all fields to reduce human error and promote efficiency, ethical concerns are raised: what to do with weapons that can literally fire themselves?

The 2015 open letter with over three thousand signatures from AI/robotics researchers titled Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter From AI & Robotics Researchers implores scientists, governments, and the international community to work toward a ban on offensive autonomous weapons. The hope is that such a ban will be achieved before such weapons become the “Kalashnikovs of tomorrow” and cause untold harm to humanity. To me philosophy is the structured study of thought, the breaking down of how and why we think things for the purpose of directing our actions to the betterment of the world around us. To Mill that means finding “one fundamental principle or law, at the root of all morality, or if there be several, there should be a determinate order of precedence among them; and the one principle, or the rule for deciding between the various principles when they conflict, ought to be self-evident.” (Mill, 1) In other words, he seeks to break down thought to a single truth that justifies how and why in order to direct actions always toward the greatest possible happiness. In utilitarianism the question is, in principle, simple: what action will cause the greatest happiness? To the signatories of this letter, the answer is a ban on autonomous weapons. They argue that the benefit gained by reducing human casualties of war does not outweigh the cost of making war more palatable or the risks of an AI arms race. In making that consideration and in justifying it in this manner, the writers are breaking down our thought using utilitarian concepts to engage in philosophical activity. They measure the usual consequences of harm to human soldiers; individual suffering, familial harm, cost of treatment and so on against those that are likely to be the usual result of an AI arms race. These being the creation of tools useful for “assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.” They then let their study inform their actions towards what they see as the betterment of our world. So this letter, to all those who read it, serves as an invitation into a conversation about the ethical use of AI and an exploration of our thought on what form weapons are allowed to take and how far progress is allowed to take us.

The most common way in which I engage in philosophical activity is through personal conversations with my peers. In such conversation we begin with our thoughts on a relevant issue; should AI have rights, what is the best method of gun control, is death really bad for a cow? From that point we break down our positions into their constituent arguments and progress through those arguments, in or out of order. As we discuss, or argue, a given argument, we enter tangential discussions and pull apart our opinions on a variety of topics. To give this mental wandering purpose, and proper philosophical status, we answer the questions and resolve the arguments until we arrive at a set of new realizations about the world we live in. With that new understanding, we become better able to shape our actions toward the betterment of the world in which we live.


Works Cited

         Note: As there exists no given primary author for this letter, all uncited           quotations are attributed to the single page of this letter.

Philosophy of the World – “Darkest Hour”

At the beginning of the course I defined philosophy as a subject that concerns it self with answering difficult questions that are not answerable. After taking the course I still have the same view but I now know why they are not answerable. My view still remains because Philosophy does attempt to answer questions that are difficult to answer and part of this reason they are not answerable is because it is hard for us to take one side. You either kill one person or kill three. Many of the topics we faced in class like wether it is alright to kill one person or 4 people, and wether it is morally okay to kill an animal; These are all heavy topics, and coming up with one standard answer is what makes philosophy… philosophy. To me Philosophy raises awareness about the questions we do not want to answer but it also allows us to be more aware of the implications of our decisions. 

For instance, I will use the example of a trolley problem and Kant’s theory of using people as mere means. You are in control of peoples lives. Either you kill one man or you kill 4. Either way you are killing someone. Now most of us will hopefully never have to be in this situation but if we were, we most likely will not choose to push the fat man over the bridge. However, this is the best thing to do. In the eyes of a utilitarian you try and bring the best to the most amount of people. Unfortunately, if we did choose to push the fat man, killing him we would look like terrible people. So philosophy allows us to realize that life is not straight forward and we ca not make decisions based solely off of one method, wether that be Kantianism or Utilitarianism, most of the time life includes various methods. 

However I chose my philosophical example because it challenges my definition. The “Darkest Hour” is a film about Winston Churchill and his time as Prime Minister during the Second World War. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the various decisions Winston faced and made, which were questioned by many. One of the main focal points of the movie is how Winston planned the rescue of Britain’s troops from the shores of France, using thousands of civilian boats. Through out the movie the decisions churchill makes are rather utilitarian – focusing on the greater good. In one particular instance Churchill has to choose between sending 4000 troops (meaning they will all most likely die) distracting the Nazi troops away from Dunkirk giving the remaining British troops a chance to retreat saving over 300,000 members, or the troops from Dunkirk retreat while the Nazi troops get closer and closer threatening the island of Britain, but saving the lives of those 4000 men. In this case, Churchill chooses to use the 4000 men as mere means to save the other men. At first many of his colleagues can not believe the decision he is making yet at the same time he is doing the right thing. He does understand though the implication of what he has done and struggles personally with it. Through out the movie each decision that is made is done to consider the greater good, and is always a controversial decision. I used this example to demonstrate that in extreme cases using one philosophical method/theory can work, but what remains is that we still have a difficult time taking one side- Churchill shows this in the film when he is split between his personal struggles and what is best for the country. 

I am thankful in my life that I do not have to make decision about choosing between the lives of people. Instead I am faced with the decision on what to do in the future. This is something I find extremely difficult. There are various things one can do in life but they do not always bring happiness to you. Focusing on what brings you happiness and on what will bring you what you want in life do not always add up. The choices I have to make are hard and I’m never quite sure which one to make. It’s almost more difficult to make decisions about your self than it is about others. This comes back to choosing one philosophical theory, or choosing a balance between several, I don’t think you can be happy going only one direction.

Pros and Cons of Mill’s Utilitarianism – Discussion

The Questions

(1) Mill believes happiness to be the ultimate goal of all humans. Is this controversial in any way?  If so, why?

(2) Imagine you were a utilitarian. How would you respond to the criticism of the Greatest Happiness Principle? i.e Should we convict an innocent person so that the general public may be happy?

The Relevance of the Questions 

(1) I asked this question as I believe that happiness is an integral part of Mill’s philosophy. Not only is it a central idea of his, but it is also a highly subjective topic that is interesting to view through a philosophical lens.

(2) The Greatest Happiness Principle is one of the more controversial topics of Mill’s teachings. I wanted to see how my peers defended it as Mill has had to dispell misconceptions about it in chapter 2 of his book Utilitarianism.

Group Discussion on the Questions 

(1) Our group agreed with Mill’s view of happiness playing a pivotal role in life. We decided that most sacrifices made in our lives are so that we may obtain happiness in some form or another. This is where we began to differ from Mill’s beliefs.  We found Mill’s ideas of high and low pleasure too subjective that applying it as a universal rule would be arbitrary. Hobbies that I would consider high pleasures may not even bring pleasure to another person. For example, I love soccer, however, some people may detest the idea of using your foot to dribble a ball. This does not invalidate my love for soccer as a high pleasure.

(2) As a general principle for following morals, we found utilitarianism to be a good code. However, when put up to the extremes as done so in the example of convicting an innocent person, utilitarianism can show some flaws. We came to the conclusion that utilitarianism should be used more as guidelines rather than a strict rulebook. We also focused on Mill’s use of the word “tend” which we felt indicated a degree of flexibility. We should lean towards the actions that tend to result in good moral consequences. Mill’s justice also seems to be more fluid than set in stone. This means that in a situation like the given example, our sense of right and wrong should come into play to make the right decision rather than blindly following utilitarian values.


Discussion on Mills Utilitarianism

  • Utilitarians argue that reaching the “greatest happiness principal” and avoiding all pain is the ultimate goal in life (pg. 5 of Utilitarianism by Mill), which is a similar view of Epicureans.

Does the “avoidance of pain” make sense in reality? We have all experienced pain in our lives, some worse than others, but can you argue that certain pain teaches us life lessons, provides experience and personal growth? Do you agree that pain can result in good eventually, or do you think that pain should be avoided above all else?

During my groups discussion, we agreed pain can sometimes result in happiness and personal benefit and/or benefit of others. Because pain could potentially result in good, it complies with Mills philosophy. Emotional pain is similar to physical pain in the sense that if we learn from our mistakes, for example touching a hot stove element, it teaches us to not do it again and provides us knowledge that hot things will hurt us. By enduring emotional pain in ones life, happiness can be achieved. Therefore, pain should not be avoided at all costs, considering it can be beneficial.

  • Mill states that there are two types of pleasures: sensual pleasures that Epicureans were fond of, or “pig pleasures”; and Intellectual pleasures (pg. 3-5 of Utilitarianism by Mill). He argues that intellectual pleasures are of more quality that sensual pleasures.

What is your opinion on this? Do you find this insulting to people who mostly enjoy sensual pleasures/or are incapable of enjoying intellectual pleasures?

My group discussed the fact that each human is different and therefore enjoys different things. If someone enjoys gourmet food or nice clothing, also known as “sensual pleasures”, then there should be no judgment in what they choose to enjoy. On the other hand, if someones personal taste is more intellectual, or they prefer to indulge in “higher pleasures”, then that is their own choice. It is somewhat insulting that sensual pleasures were referred to as “pigs pleasures” considering it is someones personal choice to indulge in these, also keeping in mind that an intellectual (Mill) wrote this philosophy, making this biased.