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Facebook has announced that it has shut down an artificial intelligence experiment after the AI forms involved began speaking in their own language. This comes not long after Elon Musk, founder and CEO of aerospace company SpaceX, drew criticism for cautions against AI in a speech to American governors July 15. Musk has maintained the position that AI is civilization's greatest risk, and that laws must be put into place to regulate it. He has been criticized for his approach by many, but Musk's concerns should be welcomed amid a seemingly unquestioning, relentlessly popular push to advance technology and shatter boundaries. In light of this progress, humanity and human rights must be fundamentally significant.

That Musk should appeal to American governors is no surprise. Musk, a South African by birth, has described himself as "nauseatingly pro-American" and has displayed tremendous love and respect for the United States. Musk knows it is a place of opportunity and possibility — especially for technology.

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History bears this out. Elbert Smith, in his book "The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore," touches upon the historic centrality of technological advancement to the American makeup as the country began to function in earnest: "In the development of new technology … the brash young nation was unsurpassed. Between 1840 and 1850, budding American inventors applied for 13,297 patents and received 6,033."

These innovations included new ways of cultivating and harvesting grain; steel plows designed to cut through prairie earth; newer and faster trains with greater carrying capacity both for passengers and goods; and Yankee clippers, designed for trade by water. Today as then, men like Elon Musk, American by birth or by immigration, manifest the future.

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Musk also knows many Americans carefully consider these innovations. We know innovation can come at a price. New devices, systems, machines, software and other creations can be used for harm as well as for good; and can bear negative consequences as well as positive outcomes. Americans are by no means Luddites seeking to tear up train tracks, but Americans are careful in their approach to particular forms of new technology. We rightfully worry about those who would sooner pay attention to their smartphones than the human being sitting across the restaurant table, to cite one common example.

When the focus is on the machine and not the man, we know there is cause for concern. Interactivity with the machine instead of interaction with our fellow human beings creates a kind of selfish isolation: We are dulled to human connection, and distanced from love of the other. A machine, for the moment, is subject to our control; and a human being other than ourselves is a free agent who cannot be controlled in the same fashion. And so we turn away from the other to ourselves.

In so doing, we lose the respect of recognition of the other, and the other becomes unimportant. We lose what philosopher Roger Scruton refers to as the "you-I relationship." Philosopher Gilbert Ryle's contention that there is no ghost in the machine (read: human body) — that there is no mind or soul that exists within the human body that distinguishes it — is artificially upheld by our own choosing of technology. That ghost — our God-breathed souls — is rendered irrelevant. The human becomes merely a body, or a machine. Our humanity is therefore lost, and those whom we disagree with and cannot control become second to technology. Machines can therein become a means to control those whom with which we disagree, by indoctrination, systematic enforcement or violence. And in the case of Facebook's AI, the machines can take on a life of their own.

Musk's precautions have been criticized by many as being "grounded more in science fiction films than in reality" — but it is clear Musk's concerns have merit. Typically, we consider movies like those of the "Terminator" series against a backdrop of dystopian novels and films to attempt to gain a broader understanding of the limits of our progress, and the ramifications of unchecked innovation. History and current events tell us the same. They tell us that free societies and totalitarian regimes tend toward different ends, will use the technology available to them, and will set out to innovate from the present. (Consider the level of technologically-based censorship of information in North Korea.) We know that a free society can descend into tyranny, even predicated on good intentions. Fiction often reflects reality, and fiction can explore the theoretical. Combined, these things prove to be an omen.

We come away from this with a simple philosophical precept that has existed for thousands of years: Just because it can be done, does not mean it should be done. Before we commit to any course, we have to ask fundamental questions regarding our humanity, our culture and our laws. For example, do we allow private ownership of AI forms that have the ability to wield or act as weapons? Do we limit or regulate the kinds of activities and functions these AI forms can engage in, such as work, parenting, sex and inventing their own languages? Do we limit the level and range of intelligence and adaptability an AI form may possess? Do we consider the AI form to have any rights, or a different kind of rights — and would this affect our own human rights and humanity as whole? What do we do when a company fails to self-regulate, and a situation like Facebook's is not succinctly concluded? Do we have a right to do anything at all?

This is not alarmism, but proactivism. We must be optimistic, but cautious; and we must be hopeful yet realistic. Technological innovation and progress are beautiful things — but these things can also impose dangers. That two of Facebook's AI forms could begin communicating in a language known only to them is immensely disturbing, and removes a barrier between science fiction and reality. Before we act, we have to have answers to fundamental questions — else, innovation will be our undoing.

Joe Vigliotti is a writer and a Taneytown city councilman. He can be reached through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.

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