Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Steles and Veridical Language

By John Taylor; 2010 Oct 27, Ilm 12, 167 BE

A Language of Truth

John Amos Comenius tried to devise an artificial language whose grammar made it impossible for a speaker to tell a lie. Imagine how such a language might work. A potential liar opens his mouth to speak but somewhere in his brain the liar's paradox kicks in. It short circuits his voice box and only silence comes out of his mouth. Clearly, human free will and ill will are so basic to speech that such an inherently ethical language will always an impossible dream, at least for human languages.


As the state of the art in the technology of war and peace accelerates, it may not only be possible but imperative to make machines incapable of lying, indeed of committing any other crime or wrongdoing. Our more sophisticated handheld devices now usually have GPS detectors built into them, but none, as yet, has a working moral compass. As a result, our tools can be used for good or evil. However, as we saw in a previous chapter, some robots are already being built with a decision tree of moral choices built into their circuitry. Researchers at Microsoft have even come up with a hardware interface device whose software is off-board; that is, it is constantly being updated by a live wireless feed to the Internet.

As such wireless links advance, robots will not need an entire moral philosophy built into their circuitry. A moment's interaction with an Internet server dedicated to the problem it faces will provide it with the latest conclusions of moral philosophers about what the right thing is to do. Once software, robots and machines are reliably connected to the collective wisdom of the human race, we can rest assured that our technology, at least, will do and say the right thing. What is the right thing? This is a difficult question now, but when we have global peace and democracy on a global scale it will be possible to commission common agreements by thinkers of East and West, at least upon basic ethical standards. Once this essential human ethical foundation is firmed up, we can safely build the standard interface between humans and tools that we have been calling the stele. As long as its connection to common wisdom is maintained, the stele will at last realize Comenius' dream of a totally truthful language.

The Language of Steles

The stele is a mobile robotic interface run by core software similar to today's time management programs, known as personal information managers, or PIM's. These PIM's plan the lives of humans, and interact with the world of technology to further these ends. The main service of the stele is to act as an interface between humans and more primitive tools and technologies. It rules over other machines with absolute, incontrovertible authority. The "DNA" embedded in its PIM software speaks the perfect ethical language envisioned by Comenius, a single ethical code decided upon by the latest consensus of expert opinion.

The words in the language may err, but as the machine subject approaches the level of conscious thought, it becomes ever more incapable of lies. As long as it makes choices based upon official, off-board criteria, all subsidiary technology will operate morally as well. This of course is what Isaac Asimov anticipated with his "Three Laws of Robotics," except that this code is infinitely more sophisticated, being the product of moral philosophers working together in universities around the world. All rules are transparent, the official conclusions of experts, and are subject to continual revision.

The Stele's Reason for Being


The stele is at the top of the technological food chain, the most sophisticated robot available. What makes it a perfect life companion is the fact that it is a blank slate. This reflects the nature of the human mind, which is boundless by nature. In his best known work on education, Comenius wrote,

"Aristotle compared the mind of man to a blank tablet on which nothing was written, but on which all things could be engraved. There is, however, this difference, that on the tablet the writing is limited by space, while in the case of the mind, you may continually go on writing and engraving without finding any boundary, because ... the mind is without limit." (Comenius, The Great Didactic (1649), translated by M.W. Keatinge (1896), from Wikiquotes, Comenius)

If the stele is a dictator to other machines, for an honest, sincere human being it is not arbitrary in the slightest. But it still needs to elicit compliance because, as already mentioned, a stele's first purpose is to promulgate the rule of law, to make sure that everyone knows the law and understands the difference between right and wrong. Is that enough to get everybody to obey the law? It is, according to Socrates, who taught that none do wrong willingly. All people need in order to do the right thing every time is just to know the truth. If for some the truth seems not to be enough, they have fallen short of the whole truth by failing to live the examined life. Plato caught the spirit of Socrates when he wrote in his final major work, the Laws, that,

"...whatever the way which promises to make a member of our citizen body -- male or female, young or old -- truly excellent in the virtues of soul proper to human character, be they results of some occupation, some native disposition, some possession, or passion, or conviction, or course of study, that and no other shall be the end, as I say, toward which every nerve shall be strained so long as life endures, and that not a single soul shall be found to prefer aught which hampers these pursuits. (Laws, 770d, Collected Dialogues, p. 1348)

The stele starts off as a blank slate on which a person writes the ideals by which to live throughout life. Throughout their schooling, each cosmopolitan citizen will collaborate with teachers in choosing the particular "virtues of the soul" that appeal to him or her. Once that is clear, everything on the stele is written largely by its individual owner. Everything in it contributes to the soul mission. Of course, many laws must be obeyed in order to avoid harming the central missions of others, but as Plato put it, "Any ... fate must be borne rather than the change to a polity which will breed baser men." (Laws, 770e) Those raised with a stele as a companion will not fear it or find its rules a burden.

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