Empathy and Instrumentalization: Late Ancient Cultural Critique and the Challenge of Apparently Personal Robots

In Marco Nørskov, Johanna Seibt & Oliver Santiago Quick (eds.), Culturally Sustainable Social Robotics: Proceedings of Robophilosophy 2020. Amsterdam: IOS Press. pp. 114-124 (2020)
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According to a tradition that we hold variously today, the relational person lives most personally in affective and cognitive empathy, whereby we enter subjective communion with another person. Near future social AIs, including social robots, will give us this experience without possessing any subjectivity of their own. They will also be consumer products, designed to be subservient instruments of their users’ satisfaction. This would seem inevitable. Yet we cannot live as personal when caught between instrumentalizing apparent persons (slaveholding) or numbly dismissing the apparent personalities of our instruments (mild sociopathy). This paper analyzes and proposes a step toward ameliorating this dilemma by way of the thought of a 5th century North African philosopher and theologian, Augustine of Hippo, who is among those essential in giving us our understanding of relational persons. Augustine’s semiotics, deeply intertwined with our affective life, suggest that, if we are to own persuasive social robots humanely, we must join our instinctive experience of empathy for them to an empathic acknowledgment of the real unknown relational persons whose emails, text messages, books, and bodily movements will have provided the training data for the behavior of near-future social AIs. So doing, we may see simulation as simulation (albeit persuasive), while expanding our empathy to include those whose refracted behavioral moments are the seedbed of this simulation. If we naïvely stop at the social robot as the ultimate object of our cognitive and affective empathy, we will suborn the sign to ourselves, undermining rather than sustaining a culture that prizes empathy and abhors the instrumentalization of persons.

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Jordan Joseph Wales
Hillsdale College


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