Sunday, January 30, 2005

Willing slaves

In most of the world, slavery is considered abhorrent. While largely exterminated in the developed world, slavery continues to be practiced in much of the developing regions, from bonded labor to forced prostitution. While this is tragic, what I'd like to talk about today is a potential form of slavery that doesn't yet exist: enslavement of artificial persons.

What makes slavery wrong? A right-libertarian would argue that a person's body is property just like any other, and that people have the right to use their own bodies as they see fit. Someone else forcing a person to do something infringes on this right to property. Some libertarians even claim that slavery is acceptable as long as the person sold him or herself, because that person has the right to sell their own property. Unfortunately, many people who would be in a position to sell themselves into slavery do so out of the abject poverty such unrestrained capitalism entails. This occurs today in the form of bonded labor in which a person takes a small loan to pay for something like a medical procedure and agrees to work to pay off the loan, but the wages are low enough (if there are wages at all) that the debt will never be paid.

I think the issue of self-property obfuscates the situation. The problem most people have with slavery -- myself included -- is that it is involuntary. Coercion is the key. Preference utilitarians would argue that slavery is the negation of one person's desires for the satisfaction of another's. Such an arrangement is far from ethical.

In the coming century, it is likely that there will be out of neccessity a radical redefinition of personhood. Genetic engineering -- for good or ill -- will modify some human genomes beyond compatibility with the standard, leading to artificial speciation. We might unlock the genes for human-level sapience (intelligence and self-awareness) and "uplift" animals to a higher level of intelligence for use as companions, or for specific purposes. We will develop increasingly sophisticated computer systems such that ultimately they may gain self-awareness, though perhaps in a form virtually unrecognizable to their creators. We may even simulate the performance of our own minds in computer form, machines that duplicate our consciousness.

Exactly what form an artificial person might take is speculatory. They may be all of the above, or the technical challenges to some of those ideas might prove to be insurmountable. However, it is highly unlikely that they will all fail. By 2100, humans will not be the only sapient beings.

Now, transhumanists and other people who ascribe to a technoprogressive viewpoint would grant personhood to all of the above entities. For us, personhood is a status grated to any being capable of recognizing itself as an individual with a future that it can determine. Self-awareness and self-determination.

Some bioconservatives and biochauvanists will argue for generations about the special and superior nature of the human mind, but ultimately this is a futile argument. You, reader, can't even prove that I am sapient; I could just be a clever automoton mimicing sapient behavior. For those of you who have never met me offline, I could just be a blogging program.

In any case, if we grant sapient artificial beings personhood, then it is clear that they have the right to freedom from enslavement. However, the artificial nature of these people makes the situation a bit more complicated.

What happens when we design a person to want enslavement?

Suppose I decide I want to design a new species of human. It will look exactly like you or I, and have all of the same abilities as you or I, with a few exceptions. I will give this being some instincts the rest of us lack. First will be loyalty. Suppose the neural connections that form familial attatchments in infancy are strengthened a hundred-fold and targeted only at me. I will modify the being's gratification system to reward certain tasks -- let's say physical exertion -- with dopamine and oxytocin and other "happiness" chemicals. I will deteriorate regions of the brain associated with insubordination and the desire to learn new things. I prewire physical and mental conditioning into the brain before consciousness begins. The being will not be coerced into serving me. It will want to.

Suppose now that I clone this being fifty times, buy a few acres of land in Georgia, and in fifteen years set my teenagers to work picking cotton.

Is this wrong?

It is an ethical dilemma that is not easily approached. On the level of gut instinct, of course it is wrong. They're slaves! But upon further examination, just what is wrong with it? The slaves prefer to work for me. It makes them happy. Their preferences are being fulfilled. They don't want freedom. They don't want money. All they want is to do what they're told. How, exactly, is their enslavement infringing on their right to self-determination?

Some will argue that the modifications to this being have changed it into a nonperson. But ask it anything you could ask any other person to determine self-awareness and it will respond identically. It knows itself, it knows what it is doing, it knows what it wants. It is happy. In fact, if you freed it, it would be angry at you for interfering with its desire to keep working! It is a slave only for lack of a better word.

The real question is whether it is ethical to create such a being, not what is done with the being once it is already in existence. I seriously doubt that anyone but the most disturbed would ever want to create a biological slave race for picking cotton as in my somewhat heavy-handed example. But one area people will certainly want human capability without human freedom in is for use as soldiers. "If they want to fight and die, who are we to complain?" Another is exotic prostitution. "But she likes it when I choke her!" Even if never used in any other field, I think that "biological android" soldiers and sex slaves are ultimately inevitable. They may be banned in some places, but they will be developed and used nonetheless. This doesn't even begin to touch on the development of non-biological persons and the use thereof.

The hard part is that I can't figure out why it bothers me.

For more information on present-day slavery, visit Anti-Slavery.

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