VMU Prof. J. S. Gordon: War for Protection of Our Data Is Already Lost


As AI and smart technologies keep improving, people are increasingly faced with unexpected problems. Can intelligent robots have rights? How to ensure security of data online? Who is responsible for the accidents of self-driving cars? These and other questions are explored in a new project by the scientists of Vytautas Magnus University (VMU) where experts of technologies, law and ethics have joined forces and plan cooperation with scientists in the USA and Europe.

The principal investigator of the project, head of the VMU Research Cluster for Applied Ethics, Prof. Dr. John Stewart Gordon says that when people develop new technologies they often forget to consider their consequences ethically, socially and politically. “By consulting on the impact of the innovation, one can easily respond to issues before they arise.

The new project is dedicated to interdisciplinary research: to the moral and legal issues of technologies, such as artificial intelligence. Among other topics, the experts here are exploring what moral and legal rights can be assumed by robots, what is artificial personhood, how technological progress affects legal acts, and how to take care of safety online.

„An interesting Lithuanian phenomenon is the personal identification number (asmens kodas) which you use everywhere in your life, from mobile phone contracts to rent to insurance. If someone is able to get a hold of this number the person (or political institution) will be able to get all the information about everything you have done with this number in your life. Where’s privacy there?”, the professor asks rhetorically.

Last year FBI requested Apple to unlock a mobile phone that belonged to a terrorist: the company refused to comply but some time afterwards the Bureau itself managed to crack the phone’s security. According to Prof. Gordon, this only confirms that it is naïve to expect that our data are 100% secure.

“I think we have already lost the war for the protection of our data. People leave so many traces online – if a person knowledgeable in technologies wants to know something about you, the person will get it. Furthermore, it is not only the private company or a single person – the state will also be able to access your data whenever the state wants”, the ethics expert explains.

Prof. Gordon asserts that one of the more interesting issues relevant today and also explored by the project is robot rights: should artificially intelligent beings capable of independent thought have rights? In the Western world, this matter is related to discussions about the moral status of human embryo or foetus and when they become a person. In the debates regarding people, having moral (and legal) rights requires that the being has a moral status and is considered a person, i.e. someone whose well-being is taken into account by others. However, the issue becomes more complicated when discussing robots.

“Robots could be considered to have personhood if they meet certain criteria such as rationality, autonomy, consciousness, self-consciousness etc. But even then, a separate question would arise: are we also willing to ascribe to them moral rights, legal status, and also protect their interests”, the philosopher ponders and adds that it may be possible for such robots to appear sometime in the second half of this century.

The philosopher points out that one could think about animal rights in similar terms. For example, the Utilitarian principle claims that one should not purposely cause any harm to beings that are able to feel pain. Usually people distinguish between more developed and less developed animals and claim that the more developed animals should have a higher moral status and thus the community gives them more moral and legal rights.

“On the other hand, for example, we do ascribe moral and legal rights to human beings with severe mental impairments who lack rationality and autonomy – i.e. the aforementioned criteria according to which moral rights are ascribed -, because of their membership to the human species. This raises complex discussions in the field of disability studies”, Prof. Gordon says.

VMU project Integration Study of Future Law, Ethics and Smart Technologies is funded by the Research Council of Lithuania. The researchers have set ambitious goals for themselves: the aims, among others, are not only to evaluate smart technologies from the moral and legal perspectives, but also to discuss how to revise the education of legal professionals, how to aid lawyers in decision-making while taking innovations into account, and what moral and legal rights can be possessed by robots.

The project gives high priority to establishment of global connections: plans include preparations of international workshops and conferences, visits in some important U.S. and European research centres, and discussions with leading experts from around the world.

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