11 August 2013

Robot Ethics

Academics say the strangest things. I'm struck by the 'Enhanced punishment: can technology make life sentences longer?' post in the Oxford Practical Ethics blog by a UK academic who - as a parody or otherwise - highlights the scope for technology to increase the severity of punishment "without making drastic changes to the current UK legal system".

Incarceration, it seems, is about retribution (rather than for example containment) and apparently a fit subject for Oxbridge philosophy postdocs to demonstrate their cleverness in giving the Hammurabi 'eye for an eye' ethic a posthuman flavour.

'Lifespan enhancement' for example could
be harnessed to increase the severity of punishments. In cases where a thirty-year life sentence is judged too lenient, convicted criminals could be sentenced to receive a life sentence in conjunction with lifespan enhancement. As a result, life imprisonment could mean several hundred years rather than a few decades. It would, of course, be more expensive for society to support such sentences. However, if lifespan enhancement were widely available, this cost could be offset by the increased contributions of a longer-lived workforce.
But wait, as they say, it just gets better.

'Mind uploading' (the sort of thing that will - ahem - allow you to "read a book in a few seconds and write a PhD thesis in an afternoon") could be used to punish bad people -
uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours. This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time. Further, the eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation. Between sunrise and sunset, then, the vilest criminals could serve a millennium of hard labour and return fully rehabilitated either to the real world (if technology facilitates transferring them back to a biological substrate) or, perhaps, to exile in a computer simulated world. For this to be a realistic punishment option, however, some important issues in the philosophy of mind and personal identity would need to be addressed.
[R]esearch on subjective experience of duration could inform the design and management of prisons, with the worst criminals being sent to special institutions designed to ensure their sentences pass as slowly and monotonously as possible.
Alternately we could lock the prisoners up with a couple of ethicists and the collected works of Slavoj Zizek in a perpetual postdoc seminar.

I was particularly struck by the para on "Robot prison officers" -
The extent to which prison can be made unpleasant for prisoners is limited by considerations of the welfare of the prison staff who must deal with prisoners on a day-to-day basis. It is in the interests of these staff to keep prisoners relatively content to ensure that they can be managed safely and calmly. If human staff could one day be replaced by robots, this limiting factor would be removed. Robotics technology has already produced self-driving cars and various other impressive machines, which places robot prison officers within the bounds of possibility. Technology, then, offers (or will one day offer) untapped possibilities to make punishment for the worst criminals more severe without resorting to inhumane methods or substantially overhauling the current UK legal system.
Let's forget about the Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, apparently, and make the baddies thoroughly miserable. Why not sandpaper the crims' eyeballs, force them to listen to Cliff Richard 24/7, set fire to their hair or introduce scarification a la Dr Kafka [PDF]?

The ethicist's concern for the well-being of the prison staff is commendable - oh so commendable - but I wonder whether we can skip the robots and simply employ a couple of enthusiastic academics with cattle prods.