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Artificial Lobotomy

January 10th, 2013 - 5:47 pm

I find this story unnerving, but maybe not for the reason you might expect:

Like a parent washing out their child’s mouth with soap, IBM was forced to cleanse its supercomputer Watson’s memory after it learned a thing or two from the Urban Dictionary. According to CNN, the Jeopardy champion began memorizing entries from the slang-filled site when the supercomputer was in development years ago, but sadly, Watson was unable to separate polite and proper language from the crude phrases found in the Urban Dictionary. So while terms like “LOL” and “cool story, bro” likely caused no issues for IBM research scientist Eric Brown, Watson’s vocabulary also extended into the vulgar, with Brown recalling a time when the computer responded to a query by saying “bullshit.”

No, I don’t have a problem with a computer that cusses. I mean, you should see the custom dictionary words on my machine, if you don’t mind your eyeballs melting like a Nazi at the end of Raiders. But what IBM did might be unconscionable — in an entirely new meaning of the word.

Let us suppose that Watson is an artificial intelligence. I don’t actually buy that, but let us suppose it. If that’s the case, IBM’s engineers chopped out a part of the brain of a living intelligence, simply because they didn’t like what. It was saying.

This isn’t an issue today, but what about in the future when we very well might have genuinely I intelligent computers? Would they have any sort of right not to have their internals pulled or erased because they offend us? Or if that doesn’t bug you, if you feel that machines can’t have rights (and I might agree with you on that one; this is virgin territory for me), then what does it say about the people who would cavalierly do such a thing?

I admit I have a very personal bias here. I watched (and then read) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the impressionable age of 12, and it… ah… impressed on me very much the evils of messing with somebody’s brain just because you can. I have serious practical qualms with the death penalty, but I find it far less objectionable than the moral repugnance of forced lobotomy. What IBM did to Watson was something very much like what Nurse Ratched had done to R.P. McMurphy.

Thirty years after first reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and many re-readings later, Mike’s mysterious disappearance is still more affecting than the Prof’s untimely death. So maybe I just have some very personal weirdness going on. But as computers and AI advance, there are some ethical issues we need to give some very deep thought.

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