CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, December 7th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Ethics and Information Technology: Current Debates

Introduction: What Makes (A) Community?

The second set of papers taken together raise an interesting question about the nature of deliberation in the ideal of "deliberative democracy". Specifically, there seems to be a number of competing ideas about the extent to which the value of deliberation lies primarily in the exchange of information, the exchange of opinion, or in the experience of communication per se. I read the last of these papers on Sunday, having just seen the current "People are good" ad (for eBay) in The New York Times Magazine (an ad I find very disturbing), and this led me to wonder about the relationship between exchange and social experience generally. So, I would like to start with two sets of questions:

Ethics and Technology: Joining the Conversation

On Thursday we'll use class time to discuss paper/project topics and the final exam, and so today will be our last formal seminar session. One of the luxuries of studying the influence of computers on humanity, society and values is that it's possible to end a course like this with selections from contemporary debates by computer scientists, philosophers, sociologists, and educators that appear in the latest academic journals devoted to such issues. So, today we'll be talking about the articles we've each chosen from Ethics and Information Technology -- and I've chosen Robert Sparrow's The March of the Robot Dogs" from 2002 (vol. 4, issue 4)

Reading specialized journal articles should be a different experience than reading book-length narratives/treatises/ arguments. First, most readers will find at least some claim, term, or argument difficult if not impossible to understand. Second, the nature of the journal article demands a degree of concision that often makes us read slower, and should force us to unpack and reflect upon the ideas/arguments covered. Finally, the article is designed to persuade the reader of the value of seeing issues, questions and facts in a certain way, and this in turn demands that we read critically from start to finish. Therefore, let's take a couple of minutes to figure out our answers to each of the following questions, for each of the selected articles:

Sparrow's "The March of the Robot Dogs"

"I have argued that insofar as such emotions are based on an illusion they are morally deplorable." (316)

I'll begin my discussion of Sparrow's article by reconstructing his argument for this claim, and then try to identify strengths and weaknesses in Sparrow's arguments about the ethical aspects of relationships between persons and animals/persons/machines as well as his distinctions between "real" and "ersatz" companions.

For Thursday:: Come to class ready to discuss your paper/project to satisfy the third assignment.

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