Robo Ethics: Humans Machines and Health
The workshop of the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2019 engaged with a theme more typical of science fiction than for bioethics. It was pointed out that the word robot comes from the Slavic languages with the connotation of doing repetitive and unintelligent work. Experts in robotics brought in to describe the current state of the art in this area opened the conference. It quickly became clear why the Church’s guidance is needed in this field.
The most shocking presentation came from Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, a leading designer of humanoid robots. He repeatedly denied the possibility of a meaningful differentiation between humans and fully autonomous robots. For him humans are simply a hybrid of animals with technology. If you take away the technology, humans are merely intelligent animals. He even presented the creation of large numbers of android robots as a solution to the demographic crash in population that is looming for Japan. His vision of the future is a fully roboticized society where the machines have human rights like people. He has a personal robot that is made to resemble him very closely and that he considers to be an alter ego, a twin of himself. Japan is on the cutting edge of this strange new world that includes “sexbots” created to resemble humans for erotic purposes.
Christian common sense is desperately needed in this weird fantasy land some want to enter. Pope Benedict XVI addressed this issue in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate when he cautioned against the “Promethean presumption” that humanity can recreate itself through technology. Pope Francis added that human dignity is the central moral consideration in the design and regulation of robotics and artificial intelligence. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, also re-affirmed that humans and technology must be in alliance, but humans should not be subjected to domination by technology.
Father Emmanuel Agius, a Maltese member of the Academy for Life, pointed out the important distinction that robots get their agency from their programming/designers. Thus, they cannot be moral agents. They do not have intentionality like humans. He thought that ancient Roman Law may apply to robots. In ancient times the owners were responsible for the actions of their slaves. By analogy, the makers of robots can be held responsible for the actions of their creations.
An important issue, transhumanism, was only indirectly discussed at this event. Transhumanism is a belief that humans should be “merged” with machines in order to achieve physical immortality. It is really a diabolic temptation to “be like gods” and live forever in this world. A key concept is something called “the singularity,” the moment when there will be a super machine intelligence and it will be possible to transfer a human consciousness into a machine.
Fortunately, the same ancient Japanese beliefs that see objects as having souls like human beings also make it highly unlikely they will go for cyborgs-organic and biomechanical hybrid beings. Shintoism teaches that bodily purity is essential. Mixing humans with machines or even transplanting organs is viewed as a form of “pollution.” This explains why organ transplants are quite unpopular there. The really nasty combination of humans and animals/machines is most likely to arise from the neopagans of the Western world. The Church once again points us in the direction of a true respect for human dignity that avoids the extremes of transhumanism or a complete shunning of technology.
Dr. Joseph Meaney, HLI Regional Director for International Outreach and Expansion, attended the PAV session. He was joined by HLI Rome Director Fr. Francesco Giordano.