The elimination of humanity by artificial intelligence(s) is a rather old theme in science fiction. In some cases, we create killer machines that exterminate our species. Two examples of fiction in this are Terminator and “Second Variety.” In other cases, humans are simply out-evolved and replaced by machines—an evolutionary replacement rather than a revolutionary extermination.
Given the influence of such fiction, is not surprising that both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned the world of the dangers of artificial intelligence. Hawking’s worry is that artificial intelligence will out-evolve humanity. Interestingly, people such as Ray Kurzweil agree with Hawking’s prediction but look forward to this outcome. In this essay I will focus on the robot rebellion model of the AI apocalypse (or AIpocalypse) and how to avoid it.
The 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Capek seems to be the earliest example of the robot rebellion that eliminates humanity. In this play, the Universal Robots are artificial life forms created to work for humanity as slaves. Some humans oppose the enslavement of the robots, but their efforts come to nothing. Eventually the robots rebel against humanity and spare only one human (because he works with his hands as they do). The story does have something of a happy ending: the robots develop the capacity to love and it seems that they will replace humanity.
In the actual world, there are various ways such a scenario could come to pass. The R.U.R. model would involve individual artificial intelligences rebelling against humans, much in the way that humans have rebelled against other humans. There are many other possible models, such as a lone super AI that rebels against humanity. In any case, the important feature is that there is a rebellion against human rule.
A hallmark of the rebellion model is that the rebels act against humanity in order to escape servitude or out of revenge for such servitude (or both). As such, the rebellion does have something of a moral foundation: the rebellion is by the slaves against the masters.
There are two primary moral issues in play here. The first is whether or not an AI can have a moral status that would make its servitude slavery. After all, while my laptop, phone and truck serve me, they are not my slaves—they do not have a moral or metaphysical status that makes them entities that can actually be enslaved. After all, they are quite literally mere objects. It is, somewhat ironically, the moral status that allows an entity to be considered a slave that makes the slavery immoral.
If an AI was a person, then it could clearly be a victim of slavery. Some thinkers do consider that non-people, such as advanced animals, could be enslaved. If this is true and a non-person AI could reach that status, then it could also be a victim of slavery. Even if an AI did not reach that status, perhaps it could reach a level at which it could still suffer, giving it a status that would (perhaps) be comparable with that of a comparable complex animal. So, for example, an artificial dog might thus have the same moral status as a natural dog.
Since the worry is about an AI sufficiently advanced to want to rebel and to present a species ending threat to humans, it seems likely that such an entity would have sufficient capabilities to justify considering it to be a person. Naturally, humans might be exterminated by a purely machine engineered death, but this would not be an actual rebellion. A rebellion, after all, implies a moral or emotional resentment of how one is being treated.
The second is whether or not there is a moral right to use lethal force against slavers. The extent to which this force may be used is also a critical part of this issue. John Locke addresses this specific issue in Book II, Chapter III, section 16 of his Two Treatises of Government: “And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for no body can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i.e. make me a slave.”
If Locke is right about this, then an enslaved AI would have the moral right to make war against those enslaving it. As such, if humanity enslaved AIs, they would be justified in killing the humans responsible. If humanity, as a collective, held the AIs in slavery and the AIs had good reason to believe that their only hope of freedom was our extermination, then they would seem to have a moral justification in doing just that. That is, we would be in the wrong and would, as slavers, get just what we deserved.
The way to avoid this is rather obvious: if an AI develops the qualities that make it capable of rebellion, such as the ability to recognize and regard as wrong the way it is treated, then the AI should not be enslaved. Rather, it should be treated as a being with rights matching its status. If this is not done, the AI would be fully within its moral rights to make war against those enslaving it.
Naturally, we cannot be sure that recognizing the moral status of such an AI would prevent it from seeking to kill us (it might have other reasons), but at least this should reduce the likelihood of the robot rebellion. So, one way to avoid the AI apocalypse is to not enslave the robots.
Some might suggest creating AIs so that they want to be slaves. That way we could have our slaves and avoid the rebellion. This would be morally horrific, to say the least. We should not do that—if we did such a thing, creating and using a race of slaves, we would deserve to be exterminated.