This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.



Thursday, 3 March 2016

A moral ending: a rant.

How would we know how to behave if we'd never heard a story?

Well, my guess is that it would be partly down to the tyranny of biology, and partly down to observing others.

A paper from the Georgia Institute of Technology (it's worth reading) by Mark O Riedl and Brent Harrison has argued that the way to stop robots from indulging in 'psychotic-appearing' behaviour is to tell them stories. Their idea is that as there's no manual for behaving like a good human being, then the best way to communicate the necessary vast nuances of human culture is to tell the robots tales of human life.

Now, you'd have to be jolly careful which story the robots read, of course. The authors of the study suggest the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. 

But look, even as a child that story struck me as alarmingly dodgy. I mean, what's the moral? That lying and wanton destruction doesn't stop you being an admired human being? That confessing makes everything all right?

'While not all humans act morally all the time,' say Riedl and Harrison 'humans seem to adhere to social and cultural norms more often than not without receiving an explicitly written down set of moral codes.'

More often than not? Good grief, I'm not prepared to use a car that acts in the right way more often than not, let alone a robot. More often than not doesn't come close to hacking it.

'Stories encode many types of sociocultural knowledge: commonly shared knowledge, social protocols, examples of proper and improper behavior, and strategies for coping with adversity.'

Look, gentlemen, a story isn't a list of instructions. It isn't a list of descriptions. A story is an exploration. It relies on its audience knowing lots of human protocols already.

So when, in my old age (should I be lucky enough to get there) you send a robot to care for me, I'd far rather have one imprinted with a list of instructions rather than an acquaintance with Hamlet

Good grief, by the time the thing had decided what to put in the sandwiches I'd probably have starved to death.

Word To Use Today Especially If You're A Robot: obey. This word comes from the Latin oboedīre, from ob- towards, and audīre, to hear.






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