As deep background for a possible story, I have been considering hypothetical histories of self-awareness in robots. There are many stories already which posit negative consequences to mistreating self-aware machines; but I wonder if the ethics of treating them well are equally problematic.
The ethics of treating beings we created worse than humans are the successors to the debates over the rights of other races, other genders, and other animals; the issue of creation a mere mask for existing concepts of ownership and divine right. But what we could improve our creations’ lives in a way we cannot improve our own? Do we owe them more than we owe our own species? To demonstrate the issue, a thought experiment:
Developments in computer programming result in vastly improved automated problem solving by robotic production lines. But as an emergent property, the improvements also give the robots rudimentary self-awareness. We don’t know how to alter the programming to produce any result we want, but a chance event reveals a variable which lets us either leave the robots as they are or make them feel pleasure from working on a production line. Do we set the variable to ‘pleasure’?
For me, this splits into two questions:
Is the choice between increasing pleasure and not a different choice from decreasing pleasure or not? i.e. is choosing not to act the same sort of choice as choosing between two actions, or is merely standing by ethically neutral?
Is imposed pleasure actually a good thing? If we don’t have a choice about enjoying something, is it actually an addiction; or a tool of control?
As an exercise in world-building, the answers society chooses and the outcomes that might produce make for great fiction.
But for our own future, the lack of a clear answer is concerning. Few would argue we should not defend ourselves should our creations prove hostile, but – if they are not – do we build servants whose meaning is in serving, or do we let them find their own meaning, trusting to the idea that they will choose to aid their creators?
Would you turn on pleasure? Do you think the concept of a choice you can never have is meaningless?