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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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How can we Prevent Transhumans’ Violent Behavior Toward Humans?

Ted Chu

Ethical Technology

February 24, 2014

The science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov famously proposed three laws for all robots to follow: (1) a robot may not attack a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; (2) a robot must obey the orders given to it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the first rule; (3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first two rules. These “laws,” though they sound just and logical, are utterly impossible to implement if the autonomous robots are to be intelligent and able to reprogram themselves.

The following is an excerpt from Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential

However, we should ask why robots—or genetically modified humans—would have to copy our social instincts. I have argued in this book that human nature and human instincts are limiting.

Those transhuman designs that for some reason do emulate or inherit exactly the same human instincts are unlikely to be successful in the vastly complex posthuman world. Robots that are able to reprogram themselves would recognize this likelihood as well.

We have often heard the argument that autonomous intelligent beings guided by different values could be even more dangerous than humans. Presumably, they could kill people mercilessly since they are not “one of us” and do not share our moral instincts. If they could replicate easily, they may not even value what we value the most—self-preservation—which almost all law enforcement mechanisms are based on (by successfully invoking the fear of death).

Locally, it is quite conceivable that intelligent life could become extinct as a result of interspecies power struggles. Historically, during the global spread of Homo sapiens, all of its close relatives were wiped out within a short period of time. The only survivors were the great apes that lived in dense jungles inaccessible to humans. It may well be that wholesale extermination was the necessary price for the exceedingly rapid pace of human evolution over the past half million years.

However, the nonviolence scenario, while not a certainty, is far from wishful thinking. In fact, the whole of cosmic and human history tells us that this is the most likely of all scenarios. Fundamentally, different minds with drastically different motivations don’t compete. According to Gause’s Law, which states that maximum competition is to be found between those species with identical needs, transhumans are extremely unlikely to be close competitors with humans.

We also need to recognize that the murderous instinct serves the purpose of eliminating rivals for resources and mates in a shared space. However powerful, it is fundamentally a local phenomenon.

For example, while surplus food made raids far more attractive at the advent of agricultural civilization, it has been noted that many Neolithic villages seem to have been undefended, which suggests that in the great age of Neolithic expansion, tensions were relieved by emigration. Once a given frontier was closed, however, war became a chief instrument of Malthusian dynamics to hold population growth in line with available resources, which led to the creation of professional armies.

On the other hand, technological advancement has continued to expand the quantity of available resources, rendering Malthus’s laws no longer operable. If the world had somehow remained at the level of the hunter-gatherers, it would have been impossible to envision that the Earth could comfortably support a population of seven billion. Yet, because of a myriad of technical achievements as well as the evolution of the democratic market system, there is still plenty of potential left even on this tiny planet, not to mention outer space. For example, our total annual energy consumption is the equivalent of only about one hour’s worth of sunlight reaching Earth’s upper atmosphere.

We will continue to expand our ability to utilize natural resources, but transhumans will be able to do it much faster. By incorporating superior technologies, including capacities designed for inhospitable environments, transhumans almost certainly will not covet the ecological niche that humans currently occupy, just as we no longer have to fight with wild animals for food.

Contrary to popular opinion, crime and exploitation has always been a function of need and weakness. The rise of the West was characterized by brutal conquest and mercantilistic exploitation by the Spanish empire, which was inherently weak, lacking a dynamic domestic economy. That inherent weakness was one of the motivations for the empire’s imperialist adventures, but it eventually led to the empire’s downfall. Today, developed countries around the world have no need for more land grabs and forced labor to fuel further growth.

Risks and Fears 287 For much of the world, our relationship with less-evolved beings—wild animals—has also changed fundamentally since the Industrial Revolution. In the old days, “there [were] no compacts between lions and men.” Now wildlife is seen as something fragile and precious as environmental awareness takes hold. If it is possible to develop a new intelligence that makes today’s greatest geniuses seem like simpletons, we will be among the less evolved beings; but we should not thereby feel threatened, because the new sentient beings would almost certainly eliminate any reason, advantage, or necessity for mistreating or killing humans.

Apart from the arguments we have already given against the likelihood of deadly violence from transhumans, observations based on natural and cultural history show further ways to minimize deadly competition: trade, physical separation, and differentiation.

First, fighting makes sense only when it is less costly to grab than to trade. As the economist Frederic Bastiat noted, “Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will.” Second, separation in space reduces, if not eliminates, tension. Expansion to oceanic or desert environments or outer space is an obvious option and much easier for new beings evolved and designed for that purpose.

The third observation is the most fundamental: transhumans will evolve new values and motivations.

When we think of examples of strong and weak, we tend to think of the relationship between predators and prey—say, eagles and rabbits, or lions and zebras. Yet in reality, the eagle is just as weak and incapable as the rabbit in its occupation of a fixed small niche in the same ecosystem. The strength of the transhuman is extremely unlikely to be its ability to overpower the human.

When the technological and intellectual distance between the transhumans and us reaches that between us and the ants, transhumans may not even share what we consider our fundamental universal values, which we refer to by such words as “love,” “freedom,” “happiness,” “justice,” and “faith.” While these values can point to a transcendent dimension as partially revealed by our highest wisdom traditions—a dimension that is likely to survive because it can further cosmic evolution—they also have large human-specific characteristics, mainly to counterbalance and overcome our animal instincts.


Ted Chu is a professor of Economics at New York University in Abu Dhabi, and former chief economist for General Motors and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. He is the author of Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential: A Cosmic Vision for Our Future Evolution (2014).


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