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Next: Will Artificial Intelligence Have Civil Rights?

David Staley David Staley Next: Will Artificial Intelligence Have Civil Rights?
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I have written before about the Luddites and how autonomous intelligence might unleash a neo-Luddite movement. It would appear that day may have indeed arrived.

There are reports from Arizona that autonomous vehicles are being vandalized. Since 2017, there have been almost two dozen acts of sabotage against driverless vehicles operated by Waymo in the city of Chandler near Phoenix. One unidentified assailant slashed a van’s tires, other people have thrown rocks at passing driverless vans. Other Luddites have attempted to run the vehicles off the road, while one man threatened a Waymo employee riding in one of the vehicles with a PVC pipe. In another case a man brandished a pistol at the van and Waymo employee. A woman was even found screaming at a vehicle to leave her neighborhood. Thankfully, we’ve not seen anything like this in Columbus, but I wonder if we should nevertheless be on guard for such acts of vengeance against the Downtown driverless shuttle?

The Luddites were those who destroyed the mechanical looms and other devices that were threatening the jobs of those who worked in England’s textile industry. That is, the Luddites were attacking what those objects symbolically represented.  

Luddism is part of a class of behaviors that we’ve seen at various moments throughout history: those who commit acts of violence against objects as a political statement about what those objects symbolize. That is, it is not so much the physical object itself that is of concern as much as the fear of what the object represents. I once created an artwork that explored this human phenomenon, drawing connections between book burners and religious iconoclasts and Luddites throughout history. One might view the Arizona vigilantes as the next example of those who are making a political statement by attacking objects. 

I am struck by the example of the woman screaming at the autonomous van. It is interesting that she is not engaged in physical violence as much as in “psychological violence,” as she is hurling insults at an inanimate object. 

Yelling at the van to leave means treating it as if it were an undesirable intruder. While hardly the same, I am nevertheless reminded of images of white teenagers screaming insults at the Little Rock Nine, those African-American students who attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Think of the African Americans or European immigrants who were forbidden to settle in certain neighborhoods or who were redlined into selected parts of the city. Are we seeing in the actions of those in Arizona the emergence of a similar kind of behavior, aimed this time at artificial intelligence?  

This incident reminds me of the very interesting graphic novel Alex + Ada. Ada is a life-like robot that develops consciousness and sentience. In the future world depicted in the graphic novel, artificially intelligent bots are a regular feature of daily life, and are accepted without much concern as long as they are not sentient. As long as they fulfill a role as mindless servants, they are generally tolerated. Owing to a violent incident hinted at in the beginning of the novel, sentient robots are made illegal. Owning a sentient robot or even just consorting with one is grounds for incarceration. Sentient autonomous intelligence becomes an outcast class, a caste of untouchables in this future society. Artificial intelligence becomes the new Other that is treated with derision and looked upon in fear.  

I had not thought such a scenario possible, until I read of the incidents in Arizona. Even if they do not develop actual sentience and consciousness, any object that appears threateningly intelligent could very well suffer “psychological violence,” being mistreated, reviled and even discriminated against.  

In the near future, we might find ourselves asking the non-rhetorical question “do artificially intelligent entities have civil rights?”  

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

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