Excessive order kills creativity. Amidst this decorum of codified existence, serendipity often rescues us from stale monotony, often revealing a conspicuously evident yet unseen truth. Today, at work, I was seeking a collaborator, a soundboard to discuss a subject that has captured my imagination a few years ago. I was playing with the idea for a framework to codify ethics for Artifical Intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence’s journey had been a solitary one for a long time. They were handling specific tasks and often in silos. Recently, the efforts are converging towards a more communal organization of AIs — where they share learnings, lessons, and hacks with each other like a society. As humans, it might work well from a utopian viewpoint but the reality is too creative to appreciate order.
After I came back, I decided to reflect these thoughts with a friend. We went for a stroll amidst dusty road around our block, walking towards the nearby lake. This lake isn’t really picturesque — murky water, untrimmed grass, and dissonant buzzing of insects eclipsing the traffic noise, but the unhindered view of the full moon along with the open sky was a welcome relief from the routine eclipse by buildings.
Our discussion moved swiftly from ethics to Black Mirror, from mazes to choices, from travels to infinity pools — Chaos. A perfect setting for an unrestricted conversation. As we settled at a place for a few seconds, I asked a very generic question –
“Suppose there are two autonomous cars, driving towards each other on a bridge, heading for a fatal collision. One car can be saved, if the other drives off the bridge. What criteria should they consider to decide who survives?”
I was expecting her to consider the number of people inside each car, their roles in the society, age and gender of passengers and the usual signals.
“I think they should collide. Choosing anything else by a machine will be unjustifiable and wrong?” she said.
I was surprised. I thought it was naive to not consider saving lives when it’s possible but discussions can never happen if we snap to judgments. I wanted to know the rationale behind her answer. It was an intriguing answer.
“Why do you think so?” I asked.
By this time we started to walk again following a sparsely lit dirt track close to the lake.
“Coz, it’s the only fair way. Any other choice and you are quantifying the lives of people to decide who has the right to live.”
She had a point. It’s part of the constitution for most nations and indispensable part of religious doctrines — “every life is equal” and here we were discussing ethics and morality.
As we walked ahead, the coconut trees started to grow in number and the moon kept stealing glances at us and we did too. We slowly drifted to the city lights sharing stories and occasional delights at getting lost in the middle of the city.
Though we didn’t come back to the topic again, it reminded me of a satirical sketch plot I was working on — a property lawsuit for a prime kitchen spot between smart appliances, set at a time when AIs are granted personhood. I didn’t mention it. We shopped for some groceries and went home.
Later, as I mulled over our discussion and her unexpectedly simple answer, fully realizing that it will hardly have a place in the capitalistic market driven by economics, where every life is tagged with value, I wondered. I wondered that how innately we are programmed to quantify everything. I wondered that how rebellious it seems to propose an unadulterated honesty and an unbroken reflection if it means a ubiquitously fair loss. It might be hard to accept this answer but morality was never an easy company. A proposal of mutual destruction to solve a stalemate seems frivolous but any other solution means we are rebuilding our morals. We are communally agreeing to put a price tag on lives.
In the end, I didn’t reach any conclusions. All I did is added another facet to this multi-dimensional problem I am working on. So, next time when I wonder, I might be inclined to think about this more emotionally than economically and more ethically than mathematically.
Her answer may not be a transactional one but it did equate lives. It might not be a rational one but it wasn’t wrong either. The problem with rationality is it demands mathematical quantification while morality is built on emotional equations and they don’t play well together.