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Monday, July 5, 2021

When Do Robots have Free Will? Exploring the Relationships between (Attributions of) Consciousness and Free Will

Nahmias, E., Allen, C. A., & Loveall, B.
In Free Will, Causality, & Neuroscience
Chapter 3

Imagine that, in the future, humans develop the technology to construct humanoid robots with very sophisticated computers instead of brains and with bodies made out of metal, plastic, and synthetic materials. The robots look, talk, and act just like humans and are able to integrate into human society and to interact with humans across any situation. They work in our offices and our restaurants, teach in our schools, and discuss the important matters of the day in our bars and coffeehouses. How do you suppose you’d respond to one of these robots if you were to discover them attempting to steal your wallet or insulting your friend? Would you regard them as free and morally responsible agents, genuinely deserving of blame and punishment?

If you’re like most people, you are more likely to regard these robots as having free will and being morally responsible if you believe that they are conscious rather than non-conscious. That is, if you think that the robots actually experience sensations and emotions, you are more likely to regard them as having free will and being morally responsible than if you think they simply behave like humans based on their internal programming but with no conscious experiences at all. But why do many people have this intuition? Philosophers and scientists typically assume that there is a deep connection between consciousness and free will, but few have developed theories to explain this connection. To the extent that they have, it’s typically via some cognitive capacity thought to be important for free will, such as reasoning or deliberation, that consciousness is supposed to enable or bolster, at least in humans. But this sort of connection between consciousness and free will is relatively weak. First, it’s contingent; given our particular cognitive architecture, it holds, but if robots or aliens could carry out the relevant cognitive capacities without being conscious, this would suggest that consciousness is not constitutive of, or essential for, free will. Second, this connection is derivative, since the main connection goes through some capacity other than consciousness. Finally, this connection does not seem to be focused on phenomenal consciousness (first-person experience or qualia), but instead, on access consciousness or self-awareness (more on these distinctions below).

From the Conclusion

In most fictional portrayals of artificial intelligence and robots (such as Blade Runner, A.I., and Westworld), viewers tend to think of the robots differently when they are portrayed in a way that suggests they express and feel emotions. No matter how intelligent or complex their behavior, they do not come across as free and autonomous until they seem to care about what happens to them (and perhaps others). Often this is portrayed by their showing fear of their own death or others, or expressing love, anger, or joy. Sometimes it is portrayed by the robots’ expressing reactive attitudes, such as indignation, or our feeling such attitudes towards them. Perhaps the authors of these works recognize that the robots, and their stories, become most interesting when they seem to have free will, and people will see them as free when they start to care about what happens to them, when things really matter to them, which results from their experiencing the actual (and potential) outcomes of their actions.