Attack of the killer robots

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Nowadays, to talk about morality is a bad thing. It speaks to many, particularly the young, of suppression of freedom, self-expression, and creativity. To the simplistic-minded, morality is synonymous to the repression of sexuality. And to ask that morality be applied in public life is taken as alternatively a demand sprung from naivety or, worse, to dictate the imposition of one’s beliefs on what is supposedly a pluralistic society.

But what is morality except to refer to the behavior of human beings? It doesn’t necessarily refer per se to determinations of good or bad. Morality was derived from the French "moral", which in turn was taken from the Latin "moralis". Moralis simply denotes "manners" and is also related to the Latin word "mos", which means manner or custom.

Today, of course, when one speaks of morality it generally is taken to mean discussions of good or bad. But the reason why "morality" has presently taken such a meaning is precisely because in discussing morality it actually refers to acts of human beings. Assuming you are somebody who thinks that human beings are not merely "ideas" (i.e., that reality are all only thoughts or imaginations) or merely bodies (i.e., without intellect, that we are ruled by passions or compulsions; for the religious, they’d make reference to a "soul"), then you would have to agree that we have the ability (or the freedom) to make choices (i.e., a free will) on how we are to act.

Assuming you further believe that human beings have a purpose (or an "end", which is logically so because we are moving, only the dead are static), whether it be the Aristotelian or Platonic belief that we are meant to be "happy" (which is taken to mean us truly fulfilling our humanity; the religious, of course, would say heaven), then the acts we do will now take a categorization of whether such makes us achieve that happiness. In which case, that act is considered "good". If that act does not allow us to achieve that happiness or if it’s a happiness that is at the cost of greater happiness, then that act is considered "bad". Since man has an intellect (and free will), the reasonable thing for him to do is to choose "good" (which allows him to be really "happy", really human and not a mere animal ruled by compulsions) and avoid the bad (which makes us unhappy, less human). By the way, "ethics" simply refers to the formal study of morality.

That, in a reasoned logical nutshell, is what morality is (no references to religious scriptures here). Morality takes significance simply because we are human beings possessed of an intellect and the freedom to make reasonable choices as we are not mere animals ruled by instinct, passion, compulsions, or hormones.

The problem is that: robots are apparently becoming… like us.

This The Economist (Morals and the Machine, 2 June 2012) pointed out: "As robots become more autonomous, the notion of computer-controlled machines facing ethical decisions is moving out of the realm of science fiction and into the real world. Society needs to find ways to ensure that they are better equipped to make moral judgments…"

With robots (and computers) becoming more "intelligent" and their immersion in our lives get all pervasive, they have now come into positions whereby their calculations become a matter of life or death for humans on a daily basis: "Should a drone fire on a house where a target is known to be hiding, which may also be sheltering civilians? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid pedestrians if that means hitting other vehicles or endangering its occupants? Should a robot involved in disaster recovery tell people the truth about what is happening if that risks causing a panic? Such questions have led to the emergence of the field of ‘machine ethics’, which aims to give machines the ability to make such choices appropriately -- in other words, to tell right from wrong."

One remedy is to not use robots. However, the problem is that, even in warfare, between having the risk of using robots and having thousands of soldiers in harm’s way, the advantage of resorting to robots is clear.

International law has certainly not been remiss in examining this new reality. As Dave Go of the Ateneo Law School wrote (in his 2012 paper Weathering the Electric Storm: Analyzing the Consequences of Cyber Warfare in Light of the Principles of International Humanitarian Law): "Cyber warfare is a new kind of warfare. As such, the present principles of war laid down in International Law should apply -- much more specifically the principles of International Humanitarian Law. In conducting war, participants must ensure that humanitarian rights are still upheld."

The irony of it all is: while we are now worrying on how to make robots moral, some people are still obsessing in removing morality from our so-called pluralistic society.