The New Yorker
Originally published November 28, 2016
Here is an except:
This simple fact is responsible for centuries of ethical dispute. One Harambe activist might believe that killing a gorilla as a safeguard against losing human life is unjust due to our cognitive similarity: the way gorillas think is a lot like the way we think, so they merit a similar moral standing. Another might believe that gorillas get their standing from a cognitive dissimilarity: because of our advanced powers of reason, we are called to rise above the cat-eat-mouse game, to be special protectors of animals, from chickens to chimpanzees. (Both views also support untroubled omnivorism: we kill animals because we are but animals, or because our exceptionalism means that human interests win.) These beliefs, obviously opposed, mark our uncertainty about whether we’re rightful peers or masters among other entities with brains. “One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human,” the anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote. In confronting similarity and difference, we are forced to set the limits of our species’ moral reach.
Today, however, reckonings of that sort may come with a twist. In an automated world, the gaze that meets our own might not be organic at all. There’s a growing chance that it will belong to a robot: a new and ever more pervasive kind of independent mind. Traditionally, the serial abuse of Siri or violence toward driverless cars hasn’t stirred up Harambe-like alarm. But, if like-mindedness or mastery is our moral standard, why should artificial life with advanced brains and human guardianships be exempt? Until we can pinpoint animals’ claims on us, we won’t be clear about what we owe robots—or what they owe us.