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Introduction - Introduction

In the 30 years since the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s, The Measure of a Man, our collective imagination continues to toil over a future in which machine—or synthetic life—and humans fully coexist. In Star Trek, the new Picard, the movie Her, and HBO’s Westworld, we have storylines that explore moral and ethical boundaries, illuminating questions such as: What does it mean to be human? Is the answer to that question an absolute or is it a social decision? If the latter, who gets to make it? And for those who are put in the category of human, are theirs special rights? Special responsibilities? In 2018, Kai Fu-Lee, author of AI Superpowers, wrote “Artificial intelligence is a technology that sparks the human imagination.” It has certainly sparked Hollywood. Now it’s time for the rest of us to engage our imaginations to solve impending, real-world challenges.

Modern life already consists of constant human-machine interactions—from mobile devices to virtual assistants to AI that helps improve online conversations. But artificial intelligence is everywhere. Modern AI techniques like deep learning lend machines the ability to receive feedback information, optimize algorithms and provide an output, like a personalized recommendation. Amid today’s COVID-19 pandemic, the presence of these technologies and society’s reliance on them continues to grow. From virtual dinner parties to distance learning to AI-assisted contact tracing to the potential for robotic therapy—like PARO—for people on ventilators, today’s crisis reveals an enormous appreciation for the progress gained between man and machine.

But, we are a long way from peak human-machine symbiosis.

Artificially intelligent technologies, as well as the data and suite of techniques that drive them, are not infallible. Some argue that for all of the advances unlocked by these intelligent technologies, deep social inequities remain, and indeed are exacerbated by the use of AI. In Automating Inequality, political scientist Virginia Eubanks argues that in many ways big data, algorithms, and their misuse by governments has created a new “digital poorhouse” predicated on surveillance, profiling, punishment, containment and exclusion.

Critiques like the one above coupled with the rate of integration and disruption across economies, governments, and cultures has catalyzed an urgent pursuit to guide development and deployment of AI for the good of humanity. This is best illustrated by the over 243 different AI policy frameworks currently available (EPIC AI Policy Handbook and ?erife [Sherry] Wong's Fluxus Landscape, a network visualization of the AI ethics and governance community).

While the ethical questions are driving academic debate as well as popular TV shows, they only scratch the surface of a far more complex, new type of relationship between man and machine.

If Star Trek provides us with entry into first and second order analyses of the problem - how will humans interact with machines? And how will this interaction change the human in the relationship? What naturally follows is a more globally acute dimension: As the human-machine relationship becomes more interactive and embedded in every aspect of our lives, what happens to human-to-human connections our communities and our societies?

Participants of the 2020 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Artificial Intelligence, titled “Artificial Intimacy” and hosted in Santa Barbara, California, explored these and similar ethical questions. We posited possible future implications of AI on society, and proposed potential future interventions to ensure ethical and moral standards for AI. The goal of the meeting included defining “artificial intimacy,” and how to build, engineer and study this new relationship in a way that helps people be more human. The group reflects a diverse range of viewpoints from machine learning experts to philosophers, business leaders, academics, psychologists, inventors and artists. The following is a synthesis of these discussions.

To get a full sense of the range and depth of the meeting, the text is sectioned into three parts.

Darwinian Buttons examines the tradition of human psychology with a specific focus on empathy.

Design Decisions explores man’s progress towards more intelligent and empathetic machines, agents, and robots. It features real-world examples that illustrate the connection between form and function. This section also moves us towards the key paradox and core thesis of the roundtable articulated by Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauz Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. Turkle urged others to consider that what matters in building a machine that people relate to as a person does not depend on building a “humanoid” machine. If a machine behaves in ways that evoke personhood, people “create” a humanoid machine in their mind and project personhood onto it.

The Philosophical, Poetic and Political bridges the conceptual framework of artificial intimacy from individual human behavior to real world implications which expose deficiencies in our society and institutions. It offers a starting point for the development of certain tools and approaches (technical, normative, or legal) to address these imperfections.

We conclude with an urgent call for leadership willing to tackle the uncanny and the uncomfortable challenges of this future.

 
 
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