Tag Archives: demands

Six Questions about Asking and Sophia AI


The company that makes Sophia, Hanson Robotics, has become adept at linking different, highly-specific algorithms like image recognition and speech transcription in a way that mimics what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response.

Sophia AI’s mimicry of “what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response” is mostly “theatrics,” Hanson Robotics CTO Ben Goertzel openly admits. That is probably why Sophia AI has so far found her most receptive audiences on TV talk shows and in corporate theater, where she won’t have to undergo too much scrutiny. But with the launch of singularityNET, which promises to put “Sophia’s entire mind…on the network,” Hanson says that “soon…the whole world will be able to talk to her.”

I would offer that talking “to” Sophia AI — or using Sophia’s chatbot function — is still a long way from conversation in any meaningful sense of the word, because it does not involve talking with a second person. This inconvenient truth about Sophia AI has not prevented the Saudi government from naming Sophia the first “robot citizen” of the Kingdom (and the grim irony of “a robot simulation of a woman [enjoying] freedoms that flesh-and-blood women in Saudi Arabia do not” was not lost on the Washington Post); nor has it prevented tabloids from screeching about Sophia stating she would like to have a family.

If personhood is setting the bar too high, I’m content to consider merely how Sophia AI handles asking. This would involve some of the considerations I’ve been exploring in my posts on The Asking Project: what we “might be doing” (as the writer in Quartz puts it) when we ask or hear a question; what’s involved, and what’s at stake, when we address others with a request or demand; and how these and other interrogative activities might be involved in our (moral) status as persons.

For starters, here are half a dozen questions about asking and Sophia AI that occurred to me after watching her video performances. I suspect there is a clear answer to the first, and the remaining five require some extended discussion.

1. What syntactic, grammatical or other cues (e.g., intonation) does Sophia AI use to recognize a question, and distinguish it from a declarative statement?

2. Can Sophia AI distinguish a request from a demand? A demand from an order? If so, how is this done? If not, what does this shortcoming indicate?

3. Will Sophia AI ever refuse to comply with a request? Leave a demand unmet? Defy an order? If not, how should these incapacities limit the role of Sophia or any AI?

4. Could a demand ever create in Sophia AI a sense of obligation? If so, what might this “sense” entail? Can we speak coherently of AI rights, or even place limits on AI’s role, without first developing this sense?

5. Will Sophia AI ever be capable of deliberating with others and reaching consensus or agreement?

6. What would be required for Sophia AI to deliberate internally? To be capable of asking herself?

Howard Becker’s Idea of A World

Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker profile of sociologist Howard Becker brought this passage to my attention. It resonated with so many things I’ve been reading about and even writing about lately that I immediately searched out the source of the passage Gopnik quotes: “A Dialogue on the Ideas of ‘World’ and ‘Field,’” between Becker and Alain Pessin. There’s a transcript of the 2006 dialogue on Becker’s site; it also appeared in Sociological Forum and in the French journal Sociologie de l’art. Here’s the passage that initially struck me:

A “world” as I understand it–and if my language elsewhere doesn’t convey this then I’ve failed to be clear–consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. Because everyone has a project, and the outcome of negotiations between them is whatever they finally all agree to, everyone involved in such an activity has to take into account how others will respond to their own actions. David Mamet, the playwright, said somewhere I can’t now find that, in a scene in a play, everyone in the scene has something they want. If they didn’t want something they wouldn’t be there, they’d be off someplace where they could pursue something they did want. The scene consists of each one trying to get what he or she wants, and the resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

A world is a place where, willy-nilly, we find ourselves trying to do things and where we are always already committed to doing things with others; so we need constantly to read their minds or at least get a good working sense of what they want and take their intentions into account. This permits and requires us to make claims or demands on them and them on us. We ask for or compel their assistance in myriad ways, even as they and others do the same to us and myriad others.

In this conception, at least, a world is not a fiat of power, a matter of a coup or command, but an ongoing negotiation and accommodation. As Becker says elsewhere in the “Dialogue,” when Pessin presses him, once again, to differentiate idea of a world from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a “field”:

the metaphor of world–which does not seem to be at all true of the metaphor of field–contains people, all sorts of people, who are in the middle of doing something which requires them to pay attention to each other, to take account consciously of the existence of others and to shape what they do in the light of what others do. In such a world, people do not respond automatically to mysterious external forces surrounding them. Instead, they develop their lines of activity gradually, seeing how others respond to what they do and adjusting what they do next in a way that meshes with what others have done and will probably do next.

I like Becker’s sense here that we are never starting from scratch. We are always in medias res and our work is always unfinished, and it keeps unravelling and collecting itself in different configurations, collaborations, joint commitments and shared intentions.

There’s no extra-social territory, no Archimedean point from which we make a world. We are already in it; and we are never very far from each other, even when we think we are making plans of our own. We are constantly making little, often imperceptible adjustments and changes to what we are doing and what we want to do, re-routing desire, fidgeting and digressing, retreating and advancing, even as we gradually recalibrate our next moves (our “lines of activity,” as Becker so nicely puts it).

Inevitably, we end up doing something other than what we initially thought we wanted or tried to do — which we ordinarily allow, because we’ve already conceded and agreed to the imperfect outcome a thousand times over.

Philosophy and Coercion: Boethius on Torture

I’ve written a few posts about non-coercive power and how it can be created and shared through genuine co-deliberation — or what I’ve been calling serious conversations. In the course of my work on this topic, I’ve discovered that good examples of non-coercive power, the kind of real-world examples that illustrate the concept with anecdotal detail and stick with you after you read them, are not so easy to find.

More often than not, history shows us the other side of the coin — namely, coercive power. This is the case when it comes to the history of philosophy as well; and philosophers have written and thought about coercive power and its exercise by the state at least since the days of Socrates.

The release of the Senate CIA Torture Report today sent me back to one of my favorite philosophers: Boethius (480-525 AD), who discussed coercion and torture in a work called The Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius wrote the Consolation while he himself was imprisoned — and, according to some sources, tortured — before being executed by Theodoric the Great. The Consolation takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who appears to Boethius when he is at his most wretched.

Philosophy consoles Boethius

The  passage I remembered today is from Book 2 (Pr 6), where Philosophy argues that what we ordinarily prize as power is actually weakness, or just a temporary advantage that we are likely bound to lose. Another turn of Fortune’s wheel, and the torturer might suffer the very torments he inflicts: a vicious circle. Virtue lies in self-possession:

What, indeed, is this power which you think so very desirable? You should consider, poor earthly animals, what it is that you seem to have in your power. If you should see a mouse seizing power and lording it over the other mice, how you would laugh! But if you consider only his body, what is weaker than a man who can be killed by the bites of insects or by worms finding their way into him? For who can force any law upon man, except upon his body, or upon his fortune which is less than his body. You can never impose upon a free spirit nor can you deprive a rationally self-possessed mind of its equanimity. Once, when a certain tyrant tried to torture a free man into betraying the partners of his conspiracy against the tyrant, the man bit off his tongue and spat it in the raging tyrant’s face. In this way the torments which the tyrant inflicted as the means of his cruelty, this wise man made the means of virtuous action. Indeed, what can any man do to another which another may not do to him? We recall that Busirus, who was accustomed to kill his guests, was himself slain by his guest, Hercules. Regulus had bound many of his African captives in chains; but before long he was himself chained by his captors. How slight is the power of a man who cannot prevent someone else from doing to him what he does to others.