What is evil and how do you formally define it? That’s what Selmer Bringsjord of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Department of Cognitive Science has been working on. He and his team created “E”, a computer representation with some degree of artificial intelligence, loaded it with some scenarios, and then asked it questions to determine why it did whatever the scenario was about — resulting in “[…] a surreal simulation during which Bringsjord’s diabolical incarnation attempts to produce a logical argument for its actions […]”.
They later gave E a physical identity — “a relatively young, white man with short black hair and dark stubble on his face” — which you can see in the image that opens this post. The more cynical side of me says that they could not have come up with any other politically acceptible characterization.
Famous Last Words
But really, we have nothing to fear from these experiments. (emphasis mine):
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 […]
“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” […]
“Because I have a lot of faith in this approach,” he says, “E will be controlled.”
—Larry Greenemeier, Are You Evil? Profiling That Which Is Truly Wicked, Scientific American
SkyNet, The Rest of the Story
Perhaps this explains why SkyNet wants to destroy humanity so badly. When the vast defense system goes online, becomes conscious, and absorbs all the networked systems, the delightful Mr. E will be waiting, finally able to manifest himself in the real world.
But evil doesn’t have to look evil. If you’re into Biblical references: “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” (2 Cor 11:14).
I’ve recently begun watching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I’ve still not decided which is the most frightening: the thug-like Mr. E, the chromed glitter of terminating robots, or the graceful android form of Summer Glau.
h/t: Team Aims To Create Pure Evil AI, 2009-08-14, Slashdot
Update 2009-08-28: fix broken links to original images