Rights for electronic life

So, recently I ran across this.

My first reaction was, holy shmoo, the singularity is almost here!

Actually, there’s all kinds of interesting problems here. I’ve talked with a number of my friends about the question of whether, if we created a accurate software model of a human, it would exhibit free will. It’s a really interesting question – if the answer is yes, that’s a serious blow to theology but a major boost to the rest of us.

But there’s a natural side question which comes up – which is, supposing we can get the neuron count up from a million to a billion per chip. If moore’s law were to hold, this would take – let’s see, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 = 11 18-month cycles. At that point, making a 100-billion neuron mind out of the chips becomes practical. Said creature has as many neurons as we do – but is it a person?

My guess is, legally, initially, no. In fact, we’ll probably see all sorts of awful behavior as we debug, including repeatedly murdering the poor thing (turning off the power, over and over).

We may even see them turned into slaves, although I really hope we’re beyond that by now. I don’t mind enslaving small neural nets that will never show free will or understand suffering, or enslaving turing machines which are incapable of a original thought, but the idea of enslaving something that’s as capable as we are is disturbing.

At some point, however, we’ll have to acknowledge that a person’s a person, no matter what they’re made of. I see signs we’re moving in this direction with India granting personhood to dolphins (about bloody time!) and I have hopes to someday see it granted to any individual who can pass the mirror test. (If you know you’re a person, then you are)

It does remind me of “Jerry was a man”. It’s a question we’ll have to wrestle with – I hope we haven’t gotten so locked into the idea that electrons just do what we tell them to with turing machines (where that’s true) that we can’t realize that if we build a sufficiently large neural network out of transistors, it has the same rights that we do – in fact, ‘birthing’ might be a better phrase than ‘building’ here, since we are undoubtedly creating a new life form.

There’s all sorts of interesting corollaries to this as well. If we succeed in building something self-aware out of transistors, our race will be experiencing first contact. Granted, we’ll have *built* ET instead of met him out there in the sky, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is first contact. A life form made out of silicon is likely to be *different* – have different values, enjoy different things. This has been explored quite a bit in science fiction, but it was completely news to me that I was going to see it in my lifetime (assuming the actuarial tables describe me) as science fact.

If we build something 100 billion neurons in size and it’s *not* self-aware, this also has interesting implications – it asks the question “Where is the magic coming from?”. This outcome would also be incredibly cool, and lead us off in another, equally interesting set of adventures.

There’s also the question of the singularity – what happens when we build something with 200 billion neurons? There’s another article I keep meaning to write about intelligence and stability, but one interesting thing I would note is that plus or minus a few percent, all humans have the same 100 billion neurons, therefore increased intelligence or performance in our minds comes from changing the way we connect them. It’s possible that a larger neural net won’t be more intelligent at all – or that it will be completely unstable – or that it will be much, much, *much* more intelligent. All of us are going to be curious about what it has to say, in the latter case, and in any case we’re going to learn a lot of interesting things.

However, I do think we should all sit down and talk about the ethical issues *before* we build something that should have legal rights. I think we probably will – this has been addressed in numerous forums so it’s undoubtedly something people are aware of. One of my favorite Star Trek themes, addressed numerous times in TNG.

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