2013 / 8 July

Wendell Wallach – “Progress is Not Coherent”


Before Wendell Wallach’s present position as Lecturer at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, he founded two computer consulting companies. He’s the author of Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong (Oxford University Press 2009), which focuses on laying the groundwork for the field of study in robot ethics / machine morality.

In my interview with Wendell, we discussed the some of the factors that he considers to be the most substantial barriers to a positive future of technological progress, in our country and others. Wendell’s interests in robot ethics extend to policy considerations, the environment, and beyond, and in our short talk I was able to glean from many of his current areas of focus.

Ethics is Not the Job of the Scientist

In Universities, never mind the world of business, the job and glory of the scientist is in the discovery. The expectation is that he is not to be the ethical arbiter of innovation who actually does the innovating. This is particularly disturbing given the powerful nature of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, AI, robotics, etc… Nick Bostrom’s “black ball” concept explains the idea best. Once we create a technology, we cannot simply tuck it away from human tinkering. When it’s out, it’s out, and considerations about which lines of research we undertake and how those findings might be used is something that Wendell believes would do us good as a race. I am congenial with this perspective as it seems as though adding a “vigilant ethical barometer” to any field is likely not a bad thing. However, creating such a shift clearly involves powerful cultural forces and reward structures.

Nobody is Rewarded for Being “Interdisciplinary”

Wendell explains that although many universities tout that they encourage “interdisciplinary” studies, those who are rewarded are generally those who go a mile deep and an inch wide, pushing ground within their field, not between fields. Part of this is a kind of natural focus on what we’re best at, part of this is momentum around the idea of “what researchers do,” but the reward structures also don’t generally suit the interdisciplinary researcher nearly as well as he who sticks to his field.

Technological Progress May Run Away from “Phronesis”

Give then “black ball” concept – and the inability to “hide” a technology once it’s been discovered, Wendell believes that it’s exceptionally important to keep technological progress vigilant in it’s results and uses. This might involve regulatory measures to avoid dangerous runaway research (which seems challenging, as such research in emerging technology seems to inevitably happen over time). It might also involve a kind of analysis period with some standards and procedures put in place on a national (or even global) level with regards to what technologies get rolled out and how. This seems particularly important with technologies that alter our human potential or human experience.

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I’d like to say a special thank you to Wendell, who happened to not only provide me with a great number of ideas, but people as well. Wendell’s personal blog is called “Moral Machines,” and you can find a great podcast featuring his ideas on robot ethics here at George Mason University’s “Surprisingly Free” conversations page.

Be well, and until next time,

-Daniel Faggella

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