Killed with kindness?

Killed with kindness?

The sci-fi dream of super-intelligent robots is coming closer every day. According to a report in The Independent recently, “robots will soon reach the stage where they… are both socially aware and can navigate their way around their environment.”

Yet a leading futurist has cautioned that such robots might not be the compliant servants we envisage. She isn’t worried that they may rise up and overthrow their human creators, like in some science fiction disaster movie, though, but rather that they might “kill us out of kindness”:

“The most important work of our lifetime is to ensure that machines are capable of understanding human value,” said Ms Watson. “It is those values that will ensure machines don’t end up killing us out of kindness.”

She’s right to be worried, but I’m not sure how she expects to teach them human value, since we humans don’t seem to have a very strong grasp of it.

In fact, we’re the living proof of her theory.

We already think that sometimes the kindest thing to do is to kill someone. Someone severely  disabled, maybe, or someone elderly in an advanced state of mental decline. Or maybe a baby with Down’s Syndrome.

Richard Dawkins recently caused uproar on twitter (again), by saying that if someone finds they are carrying a baby with Down’s Syndrome, they should, “Abort it and try again.  It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice”.

As Emma Scrivener pointed out, though, “Dawkins is not just articulating his point of view.  He’s describing what is already happening.”

At a certain point in your pregnancy, you’re offered a scan. The scan checks to see if your baby is developing normally. And if that child is not, then you can make the decision to terminate it. In fact, you will often be encouraged to do so.

So let’s say, your fetus has Down’s Syndrome. What do you do next? I’m not asking what you should do, or what you might do. What actually happens?  In the UK.  Every year.

92% of those babies diagnosed with DS, are aborted.

Which puts the furore about Dawkins into a slightly different context. As he tweeted himself: “Apparently I’m a horrid monster for recommending WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS to the great majority of Down Syndrome fetuses. They are aborted.”

Dawkins is merely putting an “ought” where, overwhelmingly, our culture has put an “is”. He is simply defending our current practice as moral. What’s fascinating is that people find his views abhorrent but not the actual practice.

Some of those babies are aborted because the parents feel unable to cope with the extra challenges a child with Down’s Syndrome represents to them, but many are aborted because the parents feel that it would be better for the child if he or she was killed before birth than if he or she was brought into the world to live with such a disability.

Motives and emotions in these cases, and those of children with far worse disabilities, are always complex, but at least one factor cited whenever the arguments rage is that of kindness.

If the humans having such arguments have not been able to reach agreement on the value of human life – whether it is inherent and should be protected at all times or whether it is contingent upon criteria such as flourishing, or some other capacity – how can they expect to be able to instill such values in the robots they programme?

Ms Watson was off by one key word in the quote above, “The most important work of our lifetime is to ensure that humans are capable of understanding human value,” not just machines. Otherwise we will all end up killing each other out of kindness.


Picture Credit: Robot army by Peyri Herrera

6 Comments On This Topic
  1. Ann
    on Sep 23rd at 5:21 pm

    What can anyone say to this – heart breaking.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Sep 24th at 8:28 am

      I know. 92%! I had no idea it was that high!

  2. thetruthisstrangerthanfiction
    on Jan 15th at 6:21 pm

    hi (me again), this is a great post. I remember when we were pregnant with our first child, and the doctor sat us down during one of the prenatal care visits, and presented us with the whole shpeal about getting the test for DS. We hadn’t discussed it beforehand or anything, but we just sort of looked at each other, and then responded in unison “no thanks…” The look on the doctor lady’s face quickly turned to a quizzical, almost patronizing demeanor, as if inwardly she was trying to determine if we were some of crazy “religious fundamentalists”, or just dumb to understand what she was talking about, so she went about trying to explain, again, what it was… We assured we understood, but explained that there was no need, since we already knew with complete certainty that were absolutely not be terminating the pregnancy whether the child had down’s or not, and so it made no sense to undergo a pointless test, especially when the just doing the test itself poses a potential risk to the baby…

    Anyhow, it was a fairly surreal moment, as if suddenly we WERE in the middle of some disturbing, dystopian sci-fi movie, trying to process the chilling reality that this woman sitting there in her white labcoat, fingers crossed calmly in her lap, speaking in forced soothing tones, was seriously suggesting a test to determine whether or not we might want to kill our child….

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 19th at 8:48 pm

      Wow, that must have been surreal. It’s offered as a beneficial test, isn’t it, but there is no benefit to anyone, except that it might help you be prepared for a child with special needs, but as you say, the test itself carries significant risk. I don’t think most people know that – it’s just a standard part of prenatal care here, I think, for older mothers, at least (not that I’ve ever experienced that!), and I don’t think the risks are made clear, and people don’t think about why they are finding out.

      How many kids have you got? How old? Congratulations! 🙂

  3. Ann
    on Jan 15th at 7:09 pm I was going to send you this link on facebook, Jen, to add to your research for your book. But then I saw this comment and it seems really appropriate here. Doctors themselves actually encouraging a mother to abort TWO healthy babies just for convenience! Not that I agree with them at all, but I can’t believe they didn’t even give the option of leaving the mother with twins! Incredible. Thankfully, the parents thought the same and are going ahead with all three pregnancies.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 19th at 8:29 pm

      Thanks, mum. I liked the woman’s statement, “But other people have triplets and I wasn’t prepared to abort two healthy babies just to make life easier.” Helpful article, thanks!


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