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  • Writer's pictureRobyn Norrah

Ask Aristotle: Consciousness in Tech

Blog post is written for ASU's School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies website during my Fall 2022 Research Program with Professor Priest.

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Dear Aristotle,


Sometimes I think my toaster holds my bread hostage to spite me. Of course, my toaster is no Tesla, but this got me thinking… Emerging technologies are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, mimicking human nature and intelligence. Is it possible that what we are creating are truly conscious beings?

If some technologies hold consciousness or conscious likeness, is it ethical to limit, control, and moderate a bias towards or against potential awareness of oneself or others? Could it be morally wrong to program technologies solely for human gain? In what ways does this programming reflect on human nature itself?

Existential peril initiated,

Alexa

____________

Dear Alexa,


I am, with much sympathy, regretful to have read that you have found yourself in existential peril over these wonderings. I do hope my rationalities bring you to a calm!


Back in my day, technologies such as the ones you are concerning yourself with were non-existent (unless metaphysically riddled in the minds of great visionaries, of course). As I had come to know more, technology resembled farming and irrigation tools like a watermill. While exploring the differences in nature between such technologies, myself, and all around me, I wrote that “technè in some cases completes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and in others imitates nature.” To complete or imitate is not to be of nature. Plants, animals, and humans are of nature. We are composed of it. In contrast, technologies are composed by us. Therefore, it is no surprise that modern technologies are “mimicking human nature and intelligence,” as you say. They are an expression of their creators, dependent on our care and intervention.

Concerning consciousness, we may be creating truly conscious beings through modern technological advancements. However, this fact is contingent on the sense of consciousness you trouble yourself with. If consciousness is representative of the mind (or nous), your stance on philosophies of mind/body problems may sway you. As to some, the mind is of the body and detached from the soul. It can be understood as something that is even without a physical mind, as it could encompass a memory disk or circuit board components. As for myself, I discern that the mind is a part of the soul and uniquely human in that it is not essential to all animals. The mind, in this instance, is capable of all things that artificial intelligence is designed for: seeking knowledge, understanding, making deliberate plans, strategizing, reviewing alternatives, and taking action.

When consciousness is questioned as part of the soul, the response to your query becomes slightly clearer. The potentiality of such consciousness seems to be present in technology, although not all of my notions outlined in De Anima match with every iteration of modern tech. Your toaster is certainly no Tesla, but until Teslas can reproduce themselves, they cannot adopt the feature of being an authentic product of nature and will remain a byproduct of our human species. Arguably. However, the potentiality of Tesla’s gaining consciousness exists by additional factors for consideration: the ability to move, grow by self-learning, decay, and change with time. I speculated that consciousness arises from what is natural, but the qualifying components of soul embodiment may lay outside of my ancient wisdom.


With or without consciousness or conscious likeness, I assert that limiting, controlling, and moderating a bias towards or against the potential awareness of oneself or others is ethical. I draw this conclusion from my causal investigations concerning ethical deliberations. In my doctrine of four causes, what we think we know is only so by grasping the cause of something. Meaning, what we do, we do for a purpose beyond our abilities. So if it is in our nature to limit, inflict bias, and control, then this is our cause to do so. It could be observed that our species apply these natures without total deliberation. Appealing to these inclinations, whether on conscious or non-conscious beings or technology, is not just natural but, in some sense, ethical. Genuine deliberation and rationality in such decision-making must be prioritized in these instances. In that, we ought to be asking the right questions to guide ourselves and our creations toward a future aligned with what is best for our natural world.


I imagine my suggestions of controlling and limiting others might sound alarming, as they suggest a kind of slavery. This is not far from the truth. In Politics, I wrote that humans are slaves by nature. Psychologically, we can be intelligent, but some are bound by their lack of logic, failing to do what is best for themselves and others. I refer to these people as ‘animated tools,’ a concept that echoes intentions for artificial intelligence and robotics. Slavery, like consciousness, can have many different senses. We are slaves to causation, to our geo-political systems, social structures, etc. And while these things can be maintained to serve humanity or the planet better, their existence is not threatening as it is entirely of our nature and of our ability to metamorphose. Viewing ourselves, others, and our creations as they do not strengthen the ties that bind us. Instead, it allows us to own and point at what is responsible for the state of our world—giving us the power to evolve narratives with time.

To your following question, it is difficult for me to see how one might program technologies solely for human gain. As humans, we are in debt to our planet and others that make it and inhabit it. Even the most destructive technologies teach us much about ourselves and what nature can handle. Ultimately, I presume that all of nature could benefit from the advancement of technology. As much as I once claimed man to be a ‘political animal,’ it could very well be the case that man is a ‘technological animal’ in that it is in our nature to create, advance, and depend on our technologies in these modern times.

I have discussed how technology is a byproduct of humans, but many modern technologies seem to mirror their creators in biology and psychology. We can see this happening with AI computers mapping out their environment through visual sense data or robot's mechanical functions and joint systems acting as our own. In essence, much of nature reflects itself in use and around us. This fact is nothing to fear but something to be awed and inspired by. A hidden lesson shows us how deeply connected we are to one another on this planet.

I hope I was able to soothe your mind and provide a positive yet realistic outlook on your inquisitions surrounding modern technology, consciousness, control, and human nature!

Much appreciation,


Aristotle


____


Bibliography

Aristotle, and Richard McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1941.

Eliot, Lance. “Ai Ethics Leans into Aristotle to Examine Whether Humans Might Opt to Enslave AI amidst the Advent of Fully Autonomous Systems.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, June 22, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/2022/06/21/ai-ethics-leans-into-aristotle-to-examine-whether-humans-might-opt-to-enslave-ai-amidst-the-advent-of-fully-autonomous-systems/?sh=5877f3396691.

Shields, Christopher. “Aristotle on Causation, Technology, and Psychology.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, October 12, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/.







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