Tag Archives: demand

Debate without demand? A Note on Project Debater

Harish Natarajan takes on Project Debater at an IBM event.

Debate without demand is shorthand for a set of qualms, concerns, and questions I have about the autonomous debating system — an AI called Project Debater that can engage in debate challenges with human beings — developed by researchers at IBM and discussed most recently in a March 17 article in Nature. A non-paywalled write up by Chris Reed and other press coverage of Project Debater does not settle these concerns.

I am unsure about nearly everything I want to say here (which is, by the way, something Project Debater cannot be), but the one thing I am prepared to say is that Project Debater looks like another AI parlor trick or corporate dog and pony show. To their credit, the IBM researchers recognize the problem. Here’s how they sum it up in their abstract:

We also highlight the fundamental differences between debating with humans as opposed to challenging humans in game competitions, the latter being the focus of classical ‘grand challenges’ pursued by the AI research community over the past few decades. We suggest that such challenges lie in the ‘comfort zone’ of AI, whereas debating with humans lies in a different territory, in which humans still prevail, and for which novel paradigms are required to make substantial progress.

While one writer claims Project Debater “is capable of arguing against humans in a meaningful way,” that seems like a real stretch, and it’s good to see the researchers behind the project do not seem ready to go that far.

I’d hold off for other reasons. Project Debater can argue for the proposition assigned to it in a structured debate game, but AI does not care about the argument it’s advancing; it has no reason to argue. And even more importantly it is not jointly committed with us to the activity of arguing. How could it be?

AI still has nothing to ask of us, nothing to demand, nothing we can recognize as a legitimate complaint. Those moral coordinations are reserved for persons. So the outcome of the debate does not matter to the AI debater; there are no life stakes for it. For this reason, the debate game looks morally empty. This is how Reed describes it:

Backed by its argumentation techniques and fuelled by its processed data sets, the system creates a 4-minute speech that opens a debate about a topic from its repertoire, to which a human opponent responds. It then reacts to its opponent’s points by producing a second 4-minute speech. The opponent replies with their own 4-minute rebuttal, and the debate concludes with both participants giving a 2-minute closing statement.

The same of course cannot be said for the real world consequences such debate games might have, or the efforts by these researchers and others to produce an argumentative AI. These experiments are fraught with moral complexity, peril, and maybe even some promise.

To Ask and To Demand

I’ve been reading a little this morning about Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome. First described by child development psychologist Elizabeth Newson, PDA is a pathology on the autism spectrum characterized, as its name suggests, by avoidance of the normal demands of everyday life: things like getting dressed, going to school, eating one’s cereal, and so forth. It’s not procrastination: the avoidance is not of the task but of the demand, which is met not just with anxious defiance but with all sorts of socially manipulative behaviors (some of them charming) as well as violent outbursts.

I suspect that this diagnosis and its treatment will have lots to teach me about what I’ve been calling — not without misgivings — the power of asking. I’m also hoping that Newson’s work and other research on PDA will shed some light on the question Marc Tognotti put to me in an email after I posted my notes on Austin and Asking: namely, whether we can talk coherently about demands as a kind of asking. I’ve been satisfied with making rough equivalences between the terms, and in an earlier post I’ve even managed to cheat the idea of moral claims into the word “demand.”

Marc countered that he was surprised that I included demands in a discussion of asking and that there is a difference between demands and requests (or asking someone to) that’s probably worth maintaining. In short, to talk about demands and asking in the same breath confuses things, he says, because demands are more akin to commands or coercion than requests.

I admit there’s a lot here to sort out, including questions about the kinds of authority, moral or otherwise, we need to make commands, demands and requests. For the time being, I’m taking refuge in the etymological roots of our English word “demand” in the French demander, and I’ve also found some shelter in the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists “to demand” among the definitions of ask. But none of that will do for very long. It might be nothing more than an avoidance strategy.

Still, I think it’s clear that the verb ask can be used exercitively — to exercise power, and that using the verb ask in that way can be (let me put it this way for now) pretty much like making a demand: “I ask that you take your hands off me.” “I ask you to respect my rights.” “I ask you to come forward, so that you can see this for yourselves.” Maybe those examples are a little clunky and formal, and I admit that the last one can be construed as invitation rather than a demand. More importantly, I don’t want to limit the “power” that I am talking about here to the making of demands or even the kind of asking that is pretty much like a demand. Ultimately, I am more interested in the way that asking — or serious conversations about what to do — can give people an equal share in power.

I still have a lot more reading to do before I can tie all this back to PDA, but I’ve managed to grasp the basics. People with PDA experience demands as a complete loss of control: powerlessness. They feel coerced, not asked to or whether they would. Even the most trifling demand seems to eclipse their will. In this diagnosis, demands are more like commands, less like asking or the start of a conversation about what to do. Even the simplest request or suggestion can be mistaken for an order and resisted.

One parent of a child with PDA reports that her child misinterprets “everything as a demand” being shouted at her; and to overcome the child’s pathological demand avoidance she and her husband “always try to phrase demands in a way that offers…choices and we are always prepared to negotiate.” Many boundaries too, have to be negotiated, even when it’s a question of what’s safe or lawful, so that the child “feels that it is either her choice or is open to negotiation.”

Of course it’s deceptive, a manipulation to give the illusion of control and preempt the child’s manipulations. It’s not a serious conversation; it’s power play: the parents engage the child in mimicking the very real power we share when we have choices to make, nobody is in charge and nothing is settled. And that is what these children seem to want, but only because that gives them a chance to take back control.

Postscript: some readers have found my last paragraph controversial or just wrongheaded. Please take a moment to read the comments on this post from parents of children diagnosed with PDA.

Is Respect Really All That Simple?

Last week, John Ruggie addressed the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, where a “new global architecture” for corporate sustainability was unveiled and celebrated. Ruggie started out by talking about the special challenges — the “problems without passports” — that the world’s “tightly-coupled” systems present, and the inadequacy of our “largely self-interested politics” to address them. This was not, however, the brief he’d been given, so he had to move on; and I hope he’ll have more to say on the topic in the future. Instead, Ruggie had been asked, he said, “to say a word about respect,” and — not surprisingly — he took the opportunity to talk about the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and how the framework helps companies meet their obligations to respect human rights.

I have been asked to say a word about respect, specifically about respecting human
rights. Its meaning is simple: treat people with dignity, be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders. But while the meaning is simple, mere declarations of respect by business no longer suffice: companies must have systems in place to know and show that they respect rights. This is where the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights come in. [pdf.]

Fair enough, but I found myself pausing here, and wondering whether the meaning of “respect” is really so simple as Ruggie makes it out to be, or at least whether “treat people with dignity” is sufficient guidance.

I understand that Ruggie’s intention here is largely rhetorical: we all know what respect means, but we need more than fine words, declarations and definitions. We need practical and consistent ways of acknowledging, checking and demonstrating human rights commitments — “systems” like the UN Guiding Principles.

Still, there are good reasons to start unpacking — and challenging — this simple definition, if only to ward off misconceptions.

First, to say that “[to] respect” human rights means “[to] treat people with dignity” (and leave it at that) invites confusion, because it passes the semantic buck from respect to dignity. If we are to treat people “with dignity” — if that’s our definition of respect — then we had better have a good working definition of dignity to govern or temper our treatment of others.

Of course, the word “dignity” is a staple of human rights discourse, so we’ve got to make allowances for shorthand here. If we don’t — if we want to take the long route and spell things out — we will most likely find our way back to Kant’s moral theory. I’m not going to attempt a summary here except to say that for Kant, dignity imposes absolute and non-negotiable constraints on our treatment of other people. Our dignity derives from our moral stature as free, rational and autonomous agents — ends in ourselves — and cannot be discussed in terms of relative value (or usefulness, or any other relative terms). It must be respected: in other words, dignity imposes strict and inviolable limits, absolute constraints, on how we treat others and how others treat us.

Most obviously people may not be treated merely as means to our ends; and that caveat is especially important when it comes to business, where, for starters, people are valued and evaluated as priced labor or “talent,” in terms of services of they perform or as “human resources.” To respect the dignity of people — “be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders” — is to recognize them as persons (or ends in themselves) and not just mere functions in an efficiency equation.

This is hasty pudding, but suffice it to say that in the Kantian idea of dignity there is the suggestion that respect follows from our recognition of others as persons: this is an idea suggested by the word “respect” itself, which comes from the Latin respicere, to look back, to give a second look. Every person deserves a second look — or I should say, demands it. Recognition is something we demand of others and others demand of us.

I like to put it this way: respect is always the first, and sometimes the only thing we ask of each other. How we respond to this demand will depend in all cases upon whether we understand that our dignity as persons makes us mutually accountable or answerable to each other in the first place. So before we can talk about how we “treat” others — before we jump, with Ruggie, to considerations of behavior — let’s take a couple of steps back, and make sure that when we talk about respect we are also talking about recognition as well as accountability.

Of course all of this may be implied in Ruggie’s definition, and I wonder if recognition and accountability are just other ways of saying that companies must “know and show” that they respect human rights. My concern is that when you gather business leaders at the UN and tell them that to respect human rights is to treat people with dignity, you may leave them with the mistaken impression that dignity is something they have the power to confer on others, rather than something that makes them answerable to others. Dignity is not something the mighty can grant or deny the meek, and respect is not another word for benevolent gestures companies might make toward communities, workers and other stakeholders. Where people stand, business must yield.