Ethics In A Technological World

Rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) are causing concern as developers are seeing biases and poor judgment displayed in job and college entry applications, criminal profiling, and more. Developers are challenged with how to ‘program’ ethics, but humans are challenged with establishing and maintaining ethics individually and as a society. Two questions are at the forefront of the argument:

  1. Are we born with ethics?

  2. How do we learn or unlearn ethics?

The Research on Ethics

Primatologist Frans de Waal shows that every baby is born with natural empathy, compassion, and a sense of cooperation. What are the conditions that cause all animals to turn away from their natural tendency? Humans and animals become less empathetic or caring for others when their sense of fairness and reciprocity is challenged.

Humans have struggled with fairness since the advent of farming 10,000 years ago and the ability to accumulate individual material wealth. Today the struggle with fairness is more acute as we are increasingly selfish and self-interested.  We are born with natural empathy so is there a disconnect within ourselves that underlies learning to feel less compassion or empathy for one another?

We can trace the beginning of our gradual disconnect from feeling reciprocity, empathy, and care for others to the 17th century when Rene Descartes naively coined ‘rationalism’ as the belief that the body is a machine controlled by the mind. How we educate, exercise, work, address health, and interact reflects the disconnect. The truth is your conscious mind does not interact with the real world, your body does.

In the last 10 years, using MRI technology, science shows that all information entering the brain comes from the senses. The senses are triggered by movement. Movement is the source of how you learn,  feel, and function. However, it is not any movement, but how you move that matters. The senses are the source of how you relate to the world outside your head. Disconnected from the senses the mind functions without a moral compass to guide it. Without connection to what we feel we increasingly make decisions based on any belief or story our mind creates.

Re-connecting with what we feel through movement will lead us back to our natural state of empathy, compassion, and sense of cooperation. Try the following to get a sense of what it feels like to move:

  1. Tap your fingers in order on a hard surface starting with the index finger to the pinkie. Notice how fast and evenly you can tap. Does it feel quite coordinated? Reverse the order and notice if the movement becomes slower, less even and less coordinated. Repeat until you feel fatigue somewhere in your body (most likely your wrist, lower arm, shoulders, and neck).

  2. This time slowly tap your fingers one at a time as you feel what to release in your wrist, elbow, shoulder, neck, jaw, and arm muscles. Repeat the movement slowly for each finger until you feel your entire arm, shoulder, chest, jaw, and neck release.

  3. Repeat the movement again and breathe from your chest. Suck the belly muscles in and hold while you breathe. Breathing may be more difficult but at least you cannot breathe from the belly. Continue slowly tapping each finger in sequence on the hard surface and release whatever muscles you feel in your arm, shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand, neck, chest, and jaw.

  4. Reverse the tapping movement starting with the pinkie finger. Notice if how you breathe changes or whether your muscles become more tense. Release as you slowly repeat, paying attention to how you breathe.

  5. This time start the movement slowly and gradually speed it up without tensing anywhere else in your body or changing how you breathe. As you breathe, contract the belly muscles for a bit and then release them. Do how you breathe change?

  6. Tap in your habitual order first and then reverse the order. Notice if there is much difference between your habitual and non-habitual way. As you repeat, notice if you fatigue to the same degree as before.

Can VR Programs Make Us Intrinsically Ethical?

Social scientists, psychologists, and others are looking at ways to use the new neural networks of AI and VR to create empathy. Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson is conducting studies in his Virtual Human Interaction Lab that allow white people to virtually become black and walk in their shoes. Another experiment is working with changing minds about global warming by giving them a virtual, visceral experience of it. The idea is that if people can connect with feeling what it is like to be black or be in extreme weather conditions they will have more empathy and make more ethical decisions based on what they feel. The caveat of attempting to instill empathy is that people may feel it momentarily, but if they are largely disconnected from what they feel it will not become an intrinsic foundation of their behavior and actions.

Ethics in Society

AI and VR offer tools to foster and promote empathy and ethics, but we must embody it to make it intrinsically part of us. Being aware of the quality of our movements re-connects us with what we feel in any given moment so the mind and body re-unify as a seamless whole where one does not take precedence over another. Our survival as a species is dependent on us making the transition to a unified mind and body leading to behavior and actions based on empathy, fairness, and caring for all. Click here for more information.

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