If virtues are the positive qualities of beings, what are the positive qualities of cyborgs? We call the admirable habits of humans ‘virtues’, so we can call the exemplary properties of the systems they form with their robots cybervirtues.
What I mean by a cybervirtue are those desirable qualities that a cyborg might possess, and what I mean by cyborg is any combination of beings and things that acts with a greater range of possibilities than either can achieve alone. Of particular interest to me at this time is the cyborg each of us forms with a robot, such as a laptop, a smartphone, or a desktop computer. If you are reading these words, you are a cyborg in the relevant sense since you could not have encountered what I am writing here without participating directly or indirectly in a network of humans and robots. The qualities of these networks, whether with just a single human and robot, or with a vast plurality of beings and things, is precisely what is at task when we think about cybervirtues.
So if virtues are the desirable habits of humans and other beings, cybervirtues are the equivalent properties humans possess as cyborgs. There are at least two senses that we can identify such qualities, and the current open forum here at Only a Game is interested in both of them. Firstly, the personal side of cybervirtue concerns the relationship between a robot and its human; the way your smart phone is designed (both in terms of its hardware and its software) governs its moral relationship with you. A simple example of such a personal cybervirtue is the recycling bin, which offers the kindness of protecting against the permanent loss of digital material by separating the decision to discard from the decision to make such discards permanent. Personal cybervirtues offer an internal sense of the term, internal to any given human-robot pairing.
On the other hand, social cybervirtues concern how the human-robot cyborg relates to other cyborgs, the external sense of the term. Here it is perhaps easier to demonstrate situations that show a lack of virtue, such as when anonymity in digital public spaces such as Twitter encourages appalling behaviour, especially (for some sad reason) towards female cyborgs. Yet the very presence of these machine-invoked moral debilities points to the possibility of cybervirtue in this external sense – the design of hardware and software to encourage virtuous behaviour in the cyborgs that result from the intimate relationship between a robot and its human.
What of autonomous robots? The capacity for a robot to take independent action once launched into a designed program of action somewhat conceals the way these are also cyborgs, always involving a human element in their constitution and operation. A cyborg (which is a contraction for cybernetic organism) could be constituted entirely by robots, provided ‘organism’ is taken metaphorically, as is often the case. But the question of whether there might eventually be robots made by other robots and entailing no assistance, direction, or maintenance by humans draws us away from the problem at hand. If such imagined future robots were beings in the relevant sense, they could possess virtues – and if they did not or could not, they would not be beings in any important sense.
Yet we do not need science fiction’s beloved sentient AI for robots to intrude upon ethics – both in terms of how they are designed, and how they effect human behaviour, computers have a significant moral aspect. What’s more, this is true of all tools for as Bruno Latour, Peter-Paul Verbeek, and Isabelle Stengers have all touched upon in various ways, things possess a moral agency too. It is not that our tools act without us, but through modifying our capabilities for action the things we use reconfigure the moral space we move within – the presence of a gun changes the moral potential of a situation; ultrasound introduces moral complexities to pregnancy that were previously absent; armed drones invite the leaders of nations to turn to assassination as a mere expediency. When we allow for the moral agency of things (even as just the modification of moral possibilities) the question of what is a virtue changes into something radically new and different, and that new perspective is precisely what I am seeking to explore.
Through the concept of cybervirtue I seek to draw attention both to the meaning of traditional virtues when considered against the backdrop of our vast networks of technology, and also to suggest ways in which the design of our robot’s hardware and software could be made to encourage virtue. Currently, this does not happen, but perhaps only because we are unaccustomed to thinking this way, and have never really thought about the design of computerised systems like this. Better design does not have to be about utility, which is a more problematic concept than we think; it could also be about encouraging virtue in humans, and cybervirtue in robot-human systems. It is up to us to create better cyborgs – either by changing our robots, or by changing ourselves.
The opening image is Elements: Earth by Vitor, which I picked out of his dormant website, The Fractal Forest, and is used with permission. This post is an edited version of What is Cybervirtue?, which ran earlier this week.