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News: June/July 2019

Wasp Logic • Euro Robo Rules • Yale scientists playing in God’s domain — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Anita Silvers

Anita Silvers, philosopher and activist, whose writings ranged from aesthetics to medical ethics, feminism, and disability rights, has died of pneumonia in San Francisco at the age of 78. She was Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University, and also served as Secretary-Treasurer of the American Philosophical Association’s Pacific Division for more than 25 years until 2008.

A serious case of polio at the age of eight left Silvers with partial quadriplegia. Angry about her limited mobility, she was determined not to be held back by it. Starting her career in academic philosophy as an expert on aesthetics, she later turned her interest to developing a new field of applied ethics: philosophical engagement with disability. This refocus was motivated by her analysis of the Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990. She argued that disability rights should be viewed the same as other civil rights and not as a special accommodation or as a social privilege: “Progress depends on constructing a neutral conception of disability, one that neither devalues disability nor implies that persons with disabilities are inadequate.” She wrote an overview of ‘Philosophy and Disability’ for Philosophy Now in 2000 (Issue 30). Her great intellect and philosophical insight will be sorely missed by all of us.

Robots and Rules

Channelling Asimov, the EU has been wrestling with a particularly philosophical problem: what ethical principles should by law be built into future AI technology? The European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG), formed in summer 2018, and consisting of fifty two experts from AI and philosophy-related fields, submitted its recommendations at the beginning of April. According to the guidelines they produced, to be considered trustworthy, AI should comply with key requirements under seven headings: ‘Human agency and oversight’, ‘technical robustness and safety’, ‘privacy and data governance’, ‘transparency’, ‘diversity, non-discrimination and fairness’, ‘societal and environmental well-being’ and ‘accountability’. These guidelines are designed to guarantee human rights and the free choices of human individuals, with an emphasis on ‘do no harm’ to rule out technology such as autonomous killer robots.

The proposals have been described by some commentators as underambitious. One of the experts, Thomas Metzinger, professor of philosophy at the University of Mainz, pointed out to Der Tagesspiegel that almost half of the group were industry representatives, and only four were ethicists, which according to him prevented the report from including red lines banning potentially unethical AI applications such as social scoring or citizen surveillance.

The next step is to test how well the requirements can be integrated into applications, with a view to favourably positioning ‘trustworthy’ EU AI technology in a market dominated by Chinese and US products. Eline Chivot of the Center for Data Innovation think-tank told The Verge magazine: “We are skeptical of the approach being taken … To be a leader in ethical AI you first have to lead in AI itself.”

Culture War Claims New… What?

In Issue 129 we reported that conservative philosopher and aesthetician Sir Roger Scruton had been made chairman of the British government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful housing commission. Alas, the appointment was short-lived – he has now been fired following the publication of an interview in left-leaning New Statesman magazine, in which he appeared to make provocative comments about race, antisemitism and Islamophobia. Afterwards the interviewer, New Statesman deputy editor George Eaton, posted a picture on Instagram of himself swigging champagne with the caption “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked.” Scruton protested that he had been misquoted in a deliberate take-down. Rival magazine the (right-leaning) Spectator took up cudgels on his behalf, eventually obtaining a recording of the interview, prompting the NS to publish the unedited transcript online and launch an internal review, which is still on-going. Claiming vindication, Scruton and his supporters are calling for his reinstatement.

Even Educated Wasps Do It

Research published in the journal Biology Letters brings us some interesting news from the world of wasps. The research found that wasps use a form of logical reasoning to infer unknown relationships from known relationships. Their behaviour demonstrates a problem-solving ability known as transitive inference, meaning if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, they can work out that A is greater than C. While evidence of vertebrates such as birds, monkeys and fish doing this has been emerging over the last few years, Dr Elizabeth Tibbetts, evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan, is the first to find it in an invertebrate animal, the paper wasp.

Training wasps to discriminate between different pairs of colours, she found that they easily learned the pairs, and were later able to use those learned relationships to organise a hierarchy of colours when given new pairs of colours. “This study adds to a growing body of evidence that the miniature nervous systems of insects do not limit sophisticated behaviours,” said Tibbetts. “We’re not saying that wasps used logical deduction to solve this problem, but they seem to use known relationships to make inferences about unknown relationships.”

STOP PRESS: Frankenpigs!

Scientists at Yale University have just succeeded in partially reanimating pigs’ brains four hours after slaughter. The research is under intense debate and throws up a host of ethical and medical questions. We’ll try to bring you an interview with the pigs in a future issue.

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