It Is Perfectly Moral To Torture A Robot -- But Should We Be Doing It

Star wars torture droidKyle Russell/Business InsiderThe IT-O Interrogator droid from ‘Star Wars’

Carnegie Mellon University roboticist Heather Knight recently published a paper on the nature of the relationship between humans and robots.

Knight arrives at the conclusion that humans and robots need each other to be at their most productive — robots are efficient workers that never get bored, and humans have the proper sense to give the robots well-defined instructions on what to do, or else they wouldn’t do anything at all.

Early in the paper, Knight addresses the question of how humans “ought” to treat machines. She argues that “the more we regard a robot as a social presence, the more we seem to extend our concepts of right and wrong to our [behaviour] toward them.”

In other words, understand that robots relate to the world entirely differently from people, but treat them the way you’d like to be treated yourself. It’s the golden rule, after all, and Knight suggests it (rather importantly) applies to robots as well. Not out of any sense of decency to the robots, but because of what such behaviour would suggest about us as people:

As Carnegie Mellon ethicist John Hooker once told our Robots Ethics class, while in theory there is not a moral negative to hurting a robot, if we regard that robot as a social entity, causing it damage reflects poorly on us. This is not dissimilar from discouraging young children from hurting ants, as we do not want such play behaviours to develop into biting other children at school.

So there’s no direct harm in torturing a machine, but it’s pretty unpleasant to manifest torture in the real world. It’s unattractive, no?

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