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Opinion | Cruelty to Robots

Opinion | Cruelty to Robots
  • United Kingdom
  • Technology, Media and Telecoms


Stirred by the second season of HBO’s Westworld, Paul Bloom and Sam Harris query the potential impact of cruelty to machines which both exhibit general intelligence and share human aesthetics, and the extent to which it matters whether such machines are conscious. Indeed, whilst the ubiquitous question in the media tends to be how those machines will treat humans, the inverse question of how humans will and/or ought to treat those machines is often overlooked.

Certainly, our treatment of machines would matter to the extent that they have consciousness. If machines will be capable of suffering, then an inevitable moral duty will arise (albeit one that will not necessarily be taken seriously by all) such that humans ought to seek to avoid being the cause of any unnecessary suffering, if not to act to minimise machine suffering (especially since we would have brought those machines into being, unilaterally). However, given that the origins of consciousness and the causes of its emergence remains a mystery, it is not clear that machines exhibiting general intelligence will also be conscious. As a result, it is tempting to put to one side considerations of our treatment of machines, just as we do with our current technology (although I do at least feel badly for my television when it is subjected to playing EastEnders).

In contrast, Bloom and Harris forcefully consider whether harm will be suffered by humans who mistreat machines, even in circumstances where those machines are unconscious.

It’s Westworld. What’s Wrong With Cruelty to Robots? - NY Times