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News: December 2023 / January 2024

A new (and problematic) use for chatbots • Monkey business with stem cells • Consciousness: Koch loses bet to Chalmers — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

AI for Grief

The rise of chatbots such as ChatGPT, has fuelled the development of an unusual application: ‘grief tech’. When conversational AI specialist James Vlahos’ father was dying from cancer in 2016, he compiled as many memories as he could and created the ‘Dadbot’. Emulating features of Vlahos’ father, the Dadbot could interact by text, audio, images and video. Building on his own experience of feeling comforted by the Dadbot, Vlahos started HereAfter AI, a company in the US that facilitates for people to upload memories, creating a ‘life story avatar’ with which family and friends can interact. Or as their website puts it, “Preserve memories with an app that interviews you about your life. Then, let loved ones hear meaningful stories by chatting with the virtual you.” A similar company in the UK, StoryFile, made it possible for an 87-year old woman to appear at her own funeral, by using recorded footage from before her death as a basis for the creation of a holographic avatar and conversational AI. Clinicians as well as applied ethicists are involved in debates about the usefulness and moral value of grief tech. Moral philosopher Jessica Heesen, Head of Media Ethics, Philosophy of Technology and AI at Tübingen University, worries that due to lack of legislation in that area, avatars could be manipulated. It would be possible to make the deceased seem very different from how they actually were. You could make them seem like a racist or Nazi. Furthermore, while conceding that grieving is a very individual process, she thinks that it might not be in the interest of the bereaved to have an interactive avatar, as it might make it difficult for them to move on.

good grief bot
Good grief bot by Paul Gregory

AI for Politics

“My role is now to represent you, like a mirror,” is the first thing Romania’s latest honorary government advisor is reported to have said. Consisting of a mirror-like display shows either text or a male or female face, talking in a serene voice, Ion has joined the prime minister’s team as its first non-human, fully AI member: Ion’s function is to interact with Romanian citizens via its own website and then give the government a speedy analysis of their views on policies and current events. “We hope to reach out to a large segment of the Romanian population,” explains Nicu Sebe, the research coordinator behind Ion and a professor of computer science at the University of Trento in Italy. Ion can also gage which topics are important to people and how they feel about them. Concerns center around the issue of uneven representation, as some voices, namely of those spending a lot of time chatting with Ion, will obviously be amplified, others never heard.

And The Winner Is… 1

In 1998, neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers made a bet at a conference in Bremen, Germany, that the mechanism by which the brain’s neurons produce consciousness would be discovered by 2023. Koch had collaborated with Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick in an attempt to find the neural correlate of consciousness. On the basis of the theory that every conscious human experience can be linked with the activity of certain neurons, Koch wagered his friend Chalmers that scientists would find a neural correlate of consciousness within 25 years. David Chalmers, now one of the foremost contemporary philosophers on consciousness, took the bet. The winner was to have a few bottles of nice wine. Both scientists agreed on 23 June 2023 on the stage of the annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness in New York City, that the relevant research is still ongoing and therefore declared Chalmers the winner. Koch recalled that the original bet had been fuelled by drinks and enthusiasm: “When you’re young, you’ve got to believe things will be simple.”

And The Winner Is… 2

The thirteenth Ratzinger Prize by the Fondazione Vaticana Joseph Ratzinger – Benedetto XVI has been awarded to Spanish philosopher Francesco Torralba Roselló (Ramon Llull University) for his work in researching, teaching and extensively publishing in the fields of anthropology and ethics. He shares the honour and the 50,000 euro prize money with Spanish theologian Pablo Blanco Sarto.

Monkey Chimera: Hopes & Horrors

Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have created a live-born monkey by infusing stem cells from one monkey species into an embryo of a different species, a scientific breakthrough. The young animal, prosaically called ‘#10’, developed respiratory failure and hypothermia within a few days of its birth and had to be euthanised.“Making chimeric monkeys could facilitate new kinds of genetic and developmental biology studies with more direct relevance to humans,” commented Dr Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell biologist and cancer researcher at the University of California Davis. He noted that there was some suffering for the monkey and added that there are other ethical concerns that cannot be ignored: “How long is it permissible to grow and study a human-monkey chimera embryo? How does one avoid having extensive human brain cells in such a chimera if you study it for long periods or is that permissible in some cases? These questions apply to other types of human-animal chimeras that have been made as well.”

Philosophers Disagree on Gaza

Philosophers should always try to help improve the standard of public discourse by good quality argumentation, especially when emotions are running high. Various reasoned public reactions by philosophers to the violent conflict between Israel and Hamas and its effect on the civilian population have emerged. An open letter titled ‘Philosophy for Palestine’ has been signed by over 400 philosophers worldwide. (aurdip.org/en/philosophy-for-palestine). Philosopher Seyla Benhabib expressed her disagreement in a public refutation called ‘An Open Letter To My Friends Who Signed ‘Philosophy for Palestine’.’ (medium.com/amor-mundi/an-open-letter-to-my-friends-who-signed-philosophy-for-palestine-0440ebd665d8). 45 Oxford academics, 14 of them philosophers and ethicists, signed ‘Open letter on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza’ (academicsongaza.wixsite.com/gazaopenletter). In reply, six Israeli moral philosophers have written: ‘A Reply to the Open Letter on the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza’ (replytoacademicson.wixsite.com/replytoacademicsonga).

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