People Know Better
The policy of forced separation of children from their parents at America’s borders, and the inability of politicians to put a quick end to it, reminded me of a recent address at St. Stephen’s by Paul Scharre. A former U.S. Army Ranger and Pentagon official who now serves at a defense strategy think tank, Scharre is an authority on the rise of artificial intelligence and its application to autonomous weaponry. His fascinating book on the subject is Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War.
What one quickly surmises from reading the book or hearing him speak is that Scharre is a man with a strong moral conscience and a tender, humanizing sensibility. His persistent theme is that, since war is likely to be an ongoing reality, we simply must keep human beings involved. Because machines can act much faster than humans can respond, unleashing them to act autonomously in times of war could be humanity’s worst nightmare.
Machines can do many important things for us. Self-driving cars are likely to make transportation much safer, and machine-learning technology, combined with data analytics, could finally help us cure cancer. But machines, at least so far as we can imagine now, will not be able to intuit and make moral judgments about unforeseen circumstances. We need humans for that. If we remove humans from decision making in times of war, the future of humanity is in trouble.
One poignant example that Paul Scharre gives is of a situation he and his fellow soldiers encountered on one of his tours of duty in Afghanistan. Paul and his troops were holding a position when a young girl came by, ostensibly herding a few goats. The American soldiers could tell that the Taliban had put the little girl up to this, forcing her to carry a radio, stake out the Americans, and signal the Americans’ position to the Taliban.
Conventional rules of war allowed Scharre and his fellow soldiers to kill this child. She was technically an “enemy combatant.” But she was a young girl.
“Obviously,” Scharre said, “we weren’t going to kill a little girl, even though we knew exactly what the Taliban had told her to do. We let her go and simply waited for the Taliban forces to show up a little later.” It was a more dangerous thing for the Americans to do, but it was the right thing.
The point, of course, is that a machine would likely go ahead and kill the enemy combatant, even though she was a small child. But people know better.
People know better. That’s what I’ve been thinking about, as I’ve been reading, with all of you, about the separation of migrant children from their parents at our nation’s borders. An autonomous machine, lacking all sense of human tenderness and moral consciousness, might make the Machiavellian decision to separate children from their parents, as a way of trying to deter migrants and refugees. But people know better. The trouble is that right now, we seem to have lost touch with something essentially human in us, and we are creating our own nightmare.
Machines will never be capable of empathy, because empathy is the ability to feel exactly what another feels. Machines and humans will always be different from one another in this way. The challenge before us as a nation right now is to demonstrate that people know better.
We know better.