Bioethics Blogs

Web Roundup: The Electronic Over-Soul and our Worst Selves (and Other Mishaps) by Sara M Bergstresser

The web roundup for this month is a sequel to last month’s roundup on Mind, Consciousness, and Artificial Intelligence. I will address another interface between machines and minds, at the “hive mind” or the collective buzz of the internet, and the ways in which human limitations can be transmitted to the artificial minds that we beget. (And this one is also a bit late, though in this case it is attributable to human error, rather than to technical difficulties.)

Recently, Microsoft created Tay, an AI “chatbot” to appeal to 18- to 24-year-olds in the US. Tay was conceptualized as a teenage girl and existed entirely in Twitter, and Twitter was the source of Tay’s cumulative “intelligence.” Therein lies the problem. Less than a day later, Tay was tweeting racist epithets, denying the Holocaust, and calling game developer Zoe Quinn a “Stupid Whore.” Tay also apparently took a liking to Donald Trump.

In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson described the Over-Soul as something divine, which can serve as a check on the baser human natures: “Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.” In 2016, the Internet appears to have formed a profane version of the collective unconscious, and this electronic over-soul strays far from Emerson’s lofty vision of transcendence. The Verge asks: “how are we going to teach AI using public data without incorporating the worst traits of humanity?” On Next Nature Network: “If the Internet was a person, then Tay would be a manifestation of a repressed and hateful part of its personality.” For Emerson, “Man is a stream whose source is hidden.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.