CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, September 23rd -- Roger B. Blumberg

After Robots and Before

"Perhaps the most unsettling implication of this train of thought is that anything can be interpreted as possessing any abstract property, including consciousness and intelligence. Given the right playbook, the thermal jostling of the atoms in a rock can be seen as the operation of a complex, self-aware mind." Hans Moravec, ROBOT: From Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (1999) [199]

"The most radical change in the human condition we can imagine would be an emigration of men from the earth to some other planet. Such an event, no longer totally impossible, would imply that man would have to live under man-made conditions, radically different from those the earth offers him. Neither labor nor work nor action nor, indeed, thought as we know it would then make sense any longer." Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958) [10]

Introduction: Back to the Future

As a way to wrap-up our discussion of Moravec,we might ask what connection(s) we can find between ROBOT and Arendt's book written 40 years earlier. Specifically, can we identify assumptions that the authors share or clearly don't share about humanity (e.g. compare they views on a future society where "work" has disappeared), and decide which author most closely reflects our own assumptions?

What were some of the puzzling claims/points/lines in the first couple of chapters of Arendt's book?

Chad Jenkins, Roboticist

We're very fortunate to have Chad as a guest today. He is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Department at Brown, having come from USC, where his 2003 doctoral dissertation concerned humanoid robots. For a more complete biography and details about his work, see his homepage: http://www.cs.brown.edu/people/cjenkins/. Today he'll talk about contemporary work in robotics, his own interests, and prospects for a robotic future.

What is the "Modern" Age?

Arendt's book examines the characteristics of the "human condition" (as opposed to "human nature") in "the modern age" (and "the modern world"). But what, in her view, distinguishes this Age from earlier times?

The Modern Age, or "Modernity", is usually contrasted with the Middle Ages, and a common view is that the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century is contemporary with the rise of Modernity. One of the characteristics of the Modern Age, according to Arendt and others (e.g. Hans Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age), is the value placed on a life of action and making, rather than a life of contemplation. Whereas before the Modern period the kosmos was considered a well-ordered, divinely created whole exemplifying values like harmony, purpose, and perfection, we think of the Modern universe as characterized exclusively by "facts" rather than "values". Although we may use the term "harmony" or "beauty" in modern Astronomy or Astrophysics, the notion is "secularized" and usually defined in the language of science rather than religion. This is only fitting if we believe, unlike Medieval scholars of the kosmos, that knowledge of the world is to be gained not by passive contemplation but by the active reconstruction (through experiment, modeling and simulation) of the world we wish to know. Thus "theory" as the contemplation of truth, is replaced by "theory" as hypothesizing, testing, revision, decision and more hypothesizing, testing, etc. In the last chapter of The Human Condition, Arendt writes:

Where formerly truth had resided in the kind of "theory" that since the Greeks had meant the contemplative glance of the beholder who was concerned with, and received, the reality opening up before him, the question of success took over and the test of theory became a "practical" one -- whether or not it will work. Theory became hypothesis, and the success of the hypothesis became truth. (278)

All this may seem well and good, but there is a question that bothers many philosophers of the Modern Age (including Arendt) concerning "value". When we could look to the Heavens and contemplate "perfection" and "harmony", believing that we were clearly observing expressions of the Divine, we had natural and authoritative measures of value to apply to ourselves and to society. But once we think our theories of the universe are less contemplations of the truth (of divinely-created reality), and more our own self-assertive hypotheses requiring regular revision, framed in ways that reflect our own human purposes, then there is a new sense in which truth seems "man-made." What becomes of our search for "meaning" and "value" in this pursuit? The only "meaning" of this sort of hypothesis-making is as a human-centered means to some human-centered end (i.e. ideas are just means, or instruments, and their truth is determined solely by their usefulness). On p. 156, Arendt writes:

Man, in so far as he is homo faber [man the maker], instrumentalizes, and his instrumentalization implies a degradation of all things into means, their loss of intrinsic and independent value, so that eventually not only the objects of fabrication but also "the earth in general and all forces of nature," ... lose their "value because [they] do no present the reification which comes from work." (Arendt is quoting Kant here)

Are "utility" and "usefulness" enough to ground our ethical judgements? If so, aren't animals and robopets in trouble? What about policies concerning the treatment of "criminal" or "unproductive" or "high maintenance" members of society?

But if "utility" is not enough, what then should replace or supplement it? Arendt's answer is rooted in the Kantian imperative to treat humans as "ends in themselves", but it's not clear that this will help us in our dealings with cyborgs or robots. (Perhaps calling into question the special meaning/value of the "human" might be thought the natural culmination of modernity.)

Arendt's The Human Condition, Prologue

Here are some questions to help us work our way into Arendt's text:

Arendt's The Human Condition, Chapter 1

More questions:

Arendt's The Human Condition, Chapter 2

Arendt gives an analysis of the private and public realms in the ancient world, suggesting important differences between what these realms involved for ancients and moderns. She then talks about the rise of the "social", against which she says both the public and the private have been "incapable of defending themselves". What is she talking about and could it be stated more clearly/simply?

With the time remaining, let's go through the sections of chapter 2, and see which were the most informative, interesting, puzzling or difficult.

For Next Time:: Read pp. 79-174 of The Human Condition, and as much of chapter 5 as you can.

Back to the Syllabus