Jul 12 2011

Rights of the nonhuman: Give me liberty or give me death?


Dolphin Head“Give me liberty or give me death!” By revealing a new level of importance for the burst-pulse sounds used by dolphins along with their clicks and whistles, researchers have realized that the sounds mirror behavior that keeps the social hierarchy and peace of the pod intact. Now, there is an increased call for a Declaration of Cetacean Rights.  In another 30 years, will this become a call for the rights of non-human AIs?

A new kickstarter documentary project will explore the possibility that dolphins’ intelligence may be superior to our own. The film hypothesizes that our own limited intelligence and human-centric orientation may prevent us from recognizing the true intelligence of other species in much the same way that 19th century western science failed to recognize the intelligence and worth of non-western cultures.  Here’s a video preview:

The riddle of dolphin clicks and whistles has befuddled researchers not unlike early Egyptologists deciphering the Rosetta Stone. The problem is: there isn’t a Dolphinese-equivalent Rosetta Stone — at least, yet.

Rosetta StoneThe earliest human-dolphin communication research dates to John Lilly’s Communication Research Institute on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in the 1950s. During the early 1960s, Lilly and co-workers published several papers reporting that dolphins could mimic human speech patterns. Lilly’s later, more controversial, work with isolation tanks and psychedelics — attempting to put himself into “dolphin space” — led him to believe that dolphins represent an alien and perhaps superior earth-bound intelligence in an aqueous medium.

In the 1980s Lilly directed a failed attempt to teach dolphins a computer-synthesized language. In the 1990s, Louis Herman of the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, found that bottlenose dolphins can keep track of over 100 different words. They can also respond appropriately to commands in which the same words appear in a different order, understanding the difference between “bring the surfboard to the man” and “bring the man to the surfboard”, for example.

A recent New Scientist article quotes Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida, on the problems with these early attempts at human-dolphin communication: “They create a system and expect the dolphins to learn it, and they do, but the dolphins are not empowered to use the system to request things from the humans.”

Herzing is now collaborating with Thad Starner, an artificial intelligence researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, on a project named Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT). They want to work with dolphins to “co-create” a language that uses features of sounds that wild dolphins communicate with naturally.

The recording device being built by Starner and his students includes two hyrdophones and a data storage computer about the size of a smartphone. The hydrophones are capable of picking up the full range of dolphin sounds. An LED in the diver’s mask will light up and indicate from which direction–thereby which dolphin sounds are coming. A handheld device called a Twiddler acts as both a mouse and a keyboard and allows the diver to select the sounds to be played back to the dolphin — that is, to decide what to “say.”

Singularity Hub reports that the initial “conversations” will involve eight “words” invented by the research team. “Seaweed” and “bow wave ride” are two examples. The researchers will then use software to listen and see if the dolphins can successfully mimic the learned sounds. If they can, the CHAT team will then listen for new words, the “fundamental units” of dolphinese.

While inter-species communication with dolphins is an exciting prospect in itself, and would certainly help cement the case for granting human-like rights for dolphins and other cetaceans (particularly if dolphins start to explicate quarks, quantum physics, and 3-D acoustical engineering to us), it is not a necessary argument for granting non-human rights according to some animal rights activists. At a two-day meeting in Helsinki in 2010 led by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, conservationists, philosophers, and lawyers have come out saying that cetaceans should be granted the equivalent of human rights. Their Declaration of Cetacean Rights reads:

  • Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  • Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  • No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
  • All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment.
  • No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or individual.
  • Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures.
  • The rights, freedoms, and norms set forth in this Declaration should be protected under international and domestic law.
  • Cetaceans are entitled to an international order in which these rights, freedoms and norms can be fully realized.
  • No State, corporation, human group, or individual should engage in any activity that undermines these rights, freedoms, or norms.
  • Noting in this Declaration shall prevent a State from enacting stricter provisions for the protection of cetacean rights.

Another organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project, goes a step further suggesting that non-human animals including chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins have the capacity to possess common law rights, “A declaration of common law personhood requires judges to decide something fundamental. A common law person is capable of having a common law right, any right. If one can have any common law right, one is a common law person.”

The multi-nation Oceanic-Union “Free Society over the Earth and Sea” broadens the definition of rights to include all forms of life (and, presumably, the ecosystems that support them). Article 106 — The respect of Animal Life — reads: “Therefore it is upon each and every Men and Women to both guard and protect all forms of life, rather than view other Animal Life forms as mere possessions and beasts of burden or pure sport.”

A noble sentiment, but one perhaps with blinders to the reality of ongoing human genocide in places like Rwanda and Darfur. If we can’t get it together with our fellow humans, how can we expect to our fellow humans to respect the rights of non-humans?

Making the civil rights case for your iRobot Roomba, of course, is downright silly. But, conceivably, by the middle of this century, machines could be demanding the same rights as humans.

Robot Woman

Ray Kurzweil has predicted that human-level AI may be here within 20 years or so. Others are more conservative, while a few think it could be here in the next decade.  What should we do with an AI with intelligence matching your own intellect as it arrives (most likely in a virtual world)? Are these things just machines that we can use however we want? If they do have civil rights, should they have the same rights as humans?

A recent Forbes blog poses a key question on the issue of AI civil rights: if an AI can learn and understand its programming, and possibly even alter the algorithms that control its behavior and purpose, is it really conscious in the same way that humans are? If an AI can be programmed in such a fashion, is it really sentient in the same way that humans are?

Even putting aside the hard question of consciousness, should the hypothetical AIs of mid-century have the same rights as humans?  The ability to vote and own property? Get married? To each other? To humans? Such questions would make the current gay rights controversy look like an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

Of course, this may all a moot point given the existential risks faced by humanity (for example, nuclear annihilation) as elucidated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and others.  Or, our AIs actually do become sentient, self-reprogram themselves, and “20 minutes later,” the technological singularity occurs (as originally conceived by Vernor Vinge).

Give me liberty or give me death? Until an AI or dolphin can communicate this sentiment to us, we can’t prove if they can even conceptualize such concepts as “liberty” or “death.” Nor are dolphins about to take up arms anytime soon even if they wanted to — unless they somehow steal prosthetic hands in a “Day of the Dolphin”-like scenario and go rogue on humanity.

The issue of rights is clearly more pressing for dolphins than AIs at this point: our cetacean cousins continue to wash ashore in the wake of massive oil spills and nuclear reactor meltdowns, and show up as sashimi in Japanese grocery stores…