Taking Turing by Surprise? Designing Digital Computers for morally-loaded contexts

Sylvie Delacroix

There is much to learn from what Turing hastily dismissed as Lady Lovelace s objection. Digital computers can indeed surprise us. Just like a piece of art, algorithms can be designed in such a way as to lead us to question our understanding of the world, or our place within it. Some humans do lose the capacity to be surprised in that way. It might be fear, or it might be the comfort of ideological certainties. As lazy normative animals, we do need to be able to rely on authorities to simplify our reasoning: that is ok. Yet the growing sophistication of systems designed to free us from the constraints of normative engagement may take us past a point of no-return. What if, through lack of normative exercise, our moral muscles became so atrophied as to leave us unable to question our social practices? This paper makes two distinct normative claims: 1. Decision-support systems should be designed with a view to regularly jolting us out of our moral torpor. 2. Without the depth of habit to somatically anchor model certainty, a computer s experience of something new is very different from that which in humans gives rise to non-trivial surprises. This asymmetry has key repercussions when it comes to the shape of ethical agency in artificial moral agents. The worry is not just that they would be likely to leap morally ahead of us, unencumbered by habits. The main reason to doubt that the moral trajectories of humans v. autonomous systems might remain compatible stems from the asymmetry in the mechanisms underlying moral change. Whereas in humans surprises will continue to play an important role in waking us to the need for moral change, cognitive processes will rule when it comes to machines. This asymmetry will translate into increasingly different moral outlooks, to the point of likely unintelligibility. The latter prospect is enough to doubt the desirability of autonomous moral agents.

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