The Widdershins

Uncanny valley…

Posted on: February 25, 2015

A good day Widdershin friends. I hope your day is a good one.

There’s the breaking news of the American Sniper killer, Eddie Ray Routh, being found guilty.  Routh was pronounced guilty in a mere three hours of jury deliberation that included a dinner break and was then promptly sentenced to life in prison. From a legal perspective, Routh being found guilty under Texas law is as about as remarkable as the sun appearing in the East this morning. There will be an unsuccessful appeal of the guilty verdict and this just in: The sun will set in the West this evening.

A couple of months back, I read an article in the NYT Magazine about the need to infuse robots with ethics in their Robot Thinkeroperating algorithms. The article was entitled Death by Robot. This need to technologically propagate a puritan guilt is a direct outgrowth of asking robots to do more.

While there are few ethical dilemmas associated with a Roomba sucking up kitty hair, there are some pretty significant dilemmas when a driverless Google car culls through its decision tree. In an emergency, does the driverless car plow over a pedestrian, hit an S.U.V., a safer Volvo, or a low passenger total Mini Cooper? This is the “moral math” that must be embedded within the operating algorithm of robots.

It’s the same concept as Isaac Asimov’s three rules in I, Robot, making sure the robot machine does its job without hurting the human for whom it works. All of these scenarios evoke the classic Ethics 101 situation known as the “trolley problem” — deciding whether a conductor should flip a switch that will kill one person to avoid a crash in which five would otherwise die.

The pearl of wisdom in this article is delivered via a quote at a U.N. conference on weapons by a Peter Asaro, a Stanford Law School scholar. He said:

A machine is not capable of considering the value of those human lives that it is about to end. And if they’re not capable of that and we allow them to kill people under the law, then we all lose dignity, in the way that if we permit slavery, it’s not just the suffering of those who are slaves but all of humanity that suffers the indignity that there are any slaves at all.

Immediately upon reading that quote my never-too-focused attention was diverted to thoughts about the “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” (AUMF) concerning ISIL as opposed to the existing AUMF passed before our ill-advised thirteen year walk-about in Iraq. The thought — forget the robots, how did our leaders do on the moral math of waltzing on a dance card that came to suck the life from perhaps a half a million humans and cost $3.0 Trillion?

These days the Googling machine makes looking back easier and more accurate than trying to remember. Here’s what we were talking about back in 2001 and 2002:

Ann Coulter was belching the indiscriminate carpet bombing of random Muslim countries without much regard for who actually planned 9/11 followed up by slaughtering Muslim leaders and forcibly converting any survivors to Christianity.

Bill Kristol called the failure to overthrow Hussein in 1991, “the biggest mistake we have made.”

We knew the fabricated news stories were baseless lies sourced from motivated defectors, but we ignored them with a collective “meh” since media sources were reigning in critical reporting of the Bush Administration due to viewer pressure and patriotic fervor.

We suffered through 4,500 press appearance from Pentagon officers and analysts to drum up support through op eds, leaked sourced stories, and innuendo.

George Will indelicately compared Democratic war critics to Nazi collaborators, Bolsheviks, Nixon, Jane Fonda, and Leninist “useful idiots”.

We knew there was an orchestrated campaign to manipulate public opinion through a PR office run by Cheney and Rumsfeld where the overriding objectives were “we don’t speak of Iraq exit strategies” and “Iraqi occupation will be a financial bonanza”.

The Iraq AUMF passed Congress on October 10, 2002.

I robotTake a look at this list here even though your memory might be robust. Time has a tendency to shave away the edges of inconvenient truths, bolster shreds of motivated reasoning, and drain any doubt from conformational bias. I had forgotten the rawness of this period and how unfocused vengeance had replaced any semblance of considered reflection.

So herein lies the rub: If no countenance of criticism was allowed from 2001 through the run-up and conduct of the Iraq War, where any and all criticism was treated as treasonous unpatriotic acts bordering on sedition, did we learn anything from taking up residence in the discomfort of the “uncanny valley” where morality never mixes with the known reality of facts?

Was the indignity of the atrocities so pungent and acrid that we have chosen to yet again forget the guilt to ease our conscience? Remarkably, if driverless robots were making these decisions, they wouldn’t have the luxury of “unlearning” factual reality — only humans are blessed with the ability to consciously ignore the guilt oozing from our compromised sense of morality.

Take the conversation in any direction you might like.


23 Responses to "Uncanny valley…"

It is time that we redefine the legal definition of insanity. M’Naughton has been around since 1843, and lacks any semblance of nuance. Even accounting for the simplicity of a small town Texas jury, there was little room for anything else shy of nullification. There are a few states (PA comes to mind) where it is possible to be guilty and insane, serving time in forensic facilities.
We have acknowledged the presence of PTSD, and I believe that the time has come for veteran’s associations to become more involved in educating society to its hard truths.

@1, Chat I completely agree, but John Hinckley did more to set back mental health issues in the law than all the gun toting, rootin’ tootin’ shooters of the wild wild west put together. I don’t think there will be a consolidated effort at legal reform until the NRA is finally brought to heel. I’m not holding my breath.

Agree completely re: Hinckley, but since vets issues are near and dear to the hearts of all legislators, this may be the time to consider change.

Hmmm…life in prison without the benefit of parole. A Texas prison that is. I might have opted for the needle or if they couldn’t do it with the appropriate drugs, then the firing squad.

Re: robot morality versus human…I watch the show “Person of Interest” religiously. It is about what happens when AIs separate from their “masters” and become their own, superpowerful entities. In that show, let’s just say that sometimes the “moral” programming works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think it is a fascinating topic to explore

I was going to post something for tomorrow, but this is so good, I’d rather leave it up and keep the discussion going! I’ll be back again on Monday. Lots of interesting activist things going on.

Thanks, Chatblu, for putting up last Monday’s post.

I was driving to New Jersey when the Oscars came on. I didn’t see most of the movies, so YMMV, but I can’t imagine anyone being better than Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imagination Game.” Just sayin’.

@5: Your mileage may vary?

I wonder how many of the jurors saw “American Sniper” and think that Kyle walked on water?

I don’t understand the John Hinckley thing you guys are talking about. He was the guy who shot Reagan, wasn’t he?

Sweet Sue, I wonder the same thing. I remember when Routh shot those two, and I was astounded that they thought a gun range was a great place for therapy for a ptsd vet. Laker did a research essay on ptsd vet care last year, and they are finding, not surprisingly, that therapies like yoga, meditation, exercise, are helpful to vets. More shooting?!? It reminds me of that poor idiot woman who provided her non-functioning son (the one who shot up the school in Connecticut) with several semi automatic weapons.

@8: Undoubtedly’
@9: Even worse – they knew that he was recently discharged from a psych facility, yet drove him to a gun range and handed him a loaded weapon. What could possibly go wrong?

@9, there’s not that much to understand about Hinckley, he dared make assault upon the personage of Ronaldus Maximus and for the very consideration of such an act should have been hewn between teams of otherwise angry stallions.

After Hinckley, there was a huge crackdown on what constituted criminal mental capacity — long story short, making it more difficult for mental illness to be a valid defense to a criminal act. Truth is, less than 1% of criminal defendants use a mental illness defense, and the instances of it being successful are extremely rare. Hinckley made them even more rare.

Sometimes people are just plain cocoa-puffs crazy — holding them to account for their diseased minds is not the product of a caring and advanced legal system.

Worse yet are post-war PTSD cases. Many of them interpret any loud noise as incipient combat. One friend knocked me to the ground and shielded me when a loud “bang” was heard in the distance. Add a gun range to that mix, and I’m unsurprised by the results. Many women dealt with loved ones who freaked if a car backfired. In that split second, they are back in combat. In that split second, they are detached from reality as we know it. In that split second, they cannot be considered to have malice aforethought.

annie said: I was astounded that they thought a gun range was a great place for therapy for a ptsd vet.

Yes, kind of incredulous isn’t it?

chat said: Even worse – they knew that he was recently discharged from a psych facility, yet drove him to a gun range and handed him a loaded weapon. What could possibly go wrong?

Moral of the story: Untrained folks should not be “treating” PTSD patients. Were they gonna let him fire off a few rounds to vent his anger or something?

He vented all right, Both of his friends.

@15: that was bad. Almost as bad as this:

@11, thanks for explaining Prolix. I did not know that. Shocking.

@12, yes, I have heard many stories like this.

Fredster, the llama is kinda cute. Probably the most sensible creature on cnn.

@annie: Yes he is cute, but knowing Don Lemon he was probably going to actually try to interview the llama. I hope at least he did not bring up “the airplane”. 🙄

@18: “Rise Hillary. Rise”.

Well yep, if Pat Robertson says it about net neutrality, I guess it’s true. 🙄

RIP. Leonard Nemoy. May the force be with you.

Indeed, RIP Leonard Nimoy — Mr. Spock affected my entire life in the way he described a better world — if only we could be half as optimistically forward-leaning and future-embracing as Roddenberry and Nimoy…

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