Friday, October 31, 2008

Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Heart of Men?

A Special Halloween post:

No, not the Shadow - try Selmer Bringsjord, cognitive scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Although he admits it is 'creepy,' he is working on what is evil and how to formally define it. According to the article in Scientific American, Bringsjord says that to be truly evil, someone must have sought to do harm by planning to commit some morally wrong action with no prompting from others:

"Bringsjord's research builds on earlier definitions put forth by San Diego State University philosophy professor J. Angelo Corlett as well as the late sociopolitical philosophers and psychologists, Joel Feinberg and Erich Fromm, but most significantly by psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck in his 1983 book, People of the Lie, The Hope for Healing Human Evil. After reading Peck's tome about clinically evil people, 'I thought it would be interesting to come up with formal structures that define evil,' Bringsjord says, 'and, ultimately, to create a purely evil character the way a creative writer would.' " His team has developed a computer representation of evil, a character called "E."

Peck described evil as "anti-love"and suggested that one of the dangers of studying evil that one may become tainted by it.

"Bringsjord acknowledges that the endeavor to create pure evil, even in a software program, does raise ethical questions, such as, how researchers could control an artificially intelligent character like E if "he" was placed in a virtual world such as Second Life, a Web-based program that allows people to create digital representations of themselves and have those avatars interact in a number of different ways.

'I wouldn't release E or anything like it, even in purely virtual environments, without engineered safeguards,' Bringsjord says. These safeguards would be a set of ethics written into the software, something akin to author Isaac Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics' that prevent a robot from harming humans, requires a robot to obey humans, and instructs a robot to protect itself—as long as that does not violate either or both of the first two laws.

'Because I have a lot of faith in this approach,' he says, 'E will be controlled.' "

If only the same could be said for everyday encounters with evil -- Sounds a like a great topic for a podcast.

The whole article in Scientific American can be accessed here.

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