Animal Cruelty and Robots

“Not Our Kind,” by Nathan Heller. The New Yorker, 11/28/2016.

Articles like this are what keeps me a subscriber. It is so meaty, so full of insights, I feel I have been locked overnight in a bakery with more goodies than I can sample.



Heller begins by reminding us of the recent news item of Harambe, a zoo’s gorilla who had to be killed when a small boy crawled into the enclosure. You would think no one would dispute the decision to safeguard the boy, but soon after there were furious calls for criminal investigations of the shooting, the zoo’s director, and of the parent’s negligence in supervising their child.

(Part of the problem, it seems to me, started by humanizing the gorilla with a name. Gorillas do not use names.)

Many people, seeing the news photos of the gorilla, projected their own human thoughts onto him. But a neuroscientist pointed out, “We can’t imagine what it’s like to actually be a gorilla. We can only imagine what it’s like to be us being a gorilla.”

In my experience, humans generally empathize with animals in the descending order:

  • Pets (mostly dogs and cats, but even snakes.)
  • Animals under our control (farm animals)
  • Wild animals
  • Ugly animals
  • Fish
  • Threatening animals (either directly, or to our food supply, or by disease)

Sometimes the order is independent of the species: We can easily empathize with a pet white rat, but not a rat discovered in our basement. Sometimes not: Goats have funny eyes with rectangular pupils and will never rate high. Cuteness always wins out.

Even the legal system is confused. New York State laws forbids inflicting pain on a pet, but permits fox trapping; prohibits electrocution of fur-bearing animals such as the muskrat, but not furry animals such as the rat. (What’s the difference between “fur-bearing” and “furry”?)

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “If a man has his dog shot . . . he thereby damages the kindly and humane qualities in himself.” And, elsewhere, “A person who already displays such cruelty to animals is also no less hardened toward men.”

I totally agree. If I read a newspaper account of egregious animal cruelty, I want that person locked up for society’s safety, not for retaliation.

robotHeller now turns to robots. The surprise is how easily we empathize with these inanimate objects.

Last year, a group of Canadians built a human-like robot programmed to hitch-hike to see if it could get from Salem, Massachusetts, to San Francisco on its own, but it disappeared after two weeks. They found it in Philadelphia (not surprising), decapitated with its arms torn off. What caused this rage on a mechanical object? The hitch-hiking idea seemed promising in Canada and Europe.

The army developed a robot to crawl around and clear landmines. It resembled an unlovable centipede, but a colonel stopped the study because he found the test too inhumane.

In another study, participants were given time to bond with small Pleo robots.  (These are expensive toy dinosaur robots. Some depict appealing baby dinosaurs.)  Then, the participants were told to tie up the robots and beat them to death. Some refused. Some prevented others from beating them. One woman complied, but removed the batteries to “spare it the pain.”

I can add my own experience to this.  When my son was young, we were playing the early computer game, Colossal Cave.  A one point we had to ask a parrot for the next clue.  He gave it to us.  Next step?  I suggested “kill bird.”

My son was shocked.  “But he helped us!”

I replied, “The bird is only a string of binary code in my computer.  Why not?”  (Still, I was pleased with his sensitive response. We did not kill the bird.)

We have yet to resolve our conflicting sentiments. Consider a self-driving car. Given a choice, should it drive into a crowd of 10 people, or slam into a wall, killing the owner? Would you buy a car programmed to kill you under specific circumstances?

The conclusion in all of this seems to be that we should get our moral goals in order now, as robots become more common. Simply screaming at a recorded phone message that interrupts our dinner is not enough.

(I know this posting sounds choppy.  The article has so much to chose from.)

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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