Workshop Summary

What Ethics for Artificial Beings?

Do synthesized living systems deserve a moral consideration similar to that of non-human vertebrates – or even human beings?
By Cross Labs
August 20, 2022
Abstract wash pattern

Last month, Cross Labs co-organized a workshop with Eric Schwitzgebel, connecting the study of ethics of AI to research in the synthesis of artificial living systems. The workshop gathered a collection of guest speakers from various parts of the field, with a diverse audience of participants, as part of the Artificial Life Conference 2022 in Trento.

The purpose of this workshop was to bring together an interdisciplinary group of scientists, philosophers, and specialists in the relevant domains connected but not limited to ethics, artificial intelligence, and robotics, for a productive round-table discussion. The workshop took a half day during the ALIFE 2022 conference, with a schedule organized around an open table, two panel discussions, and one break-out session, with only very short pitches from each invited speaker, leading to responses and debates.

The invited panelists included:

  • Henry Shevlin, PhD, a Senior Research Associate with the Kinds of Intelligence Program, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. Course Lead of the AI Ethics & Society MSt at the University of Cambridge. Philosophy Ph.D (2016) at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.
  • David J. Gunkel, PhD, an award-winning educator, scholar and author, specializing in ethics of emerging technology. Formally educated in philosophy and media studies, his teaching and research synthesize the hype of high-technology with the rigor and insight of contemporary critical analysis.
  • John Basl, PhD, Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy & Religion at Northeastern University and a faculty associate at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
  • Susan Schneider, PhD, writes about the nature of the self and mind, especially from the vantage point of issues in philosophy, AI, cognitive science and astrobiology.  In her recent book, Artificial You: AI and the Future of the Mind, she discusses the philosophical implications of AI, and, in particular, the enterprise of "mind design."
  • Erik Persson, PhD is a Researcher in Practical Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy. Erik's research and teaching are primarily focused on ethical issues concerning biodiversity, climate change, AI and space exploration.
  • Eric Schwitzgebel, PhD (co-organizer), a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside and cooperating member of UCR’s program in speculative fiction and cultures of science.
  • Olaf Witkowski, PhD (co-organizer), a Lecturer at the University of Tokyo, and Director of Research and founding member at Cross Labs, an AI research institute in Kyoto, leading fundamental research in AI and Artificial Life.

In general, the field of Artificial Life studies the nature of the living state, by modeling and synthesizing living systems. Such systems, under certain conditions, may come to deserve moral consideration similar to that of non-human vertebrates or even human beings.

The fact that these systems are non-human and evolve in a potentially radically different substrate should not be seen as an insurmountable obstacle to their potentially having rights equivalent to non-human vertebrates or even human beings, if they are sufficiently sophisticated in other respects. Nor should the fact that they owe their existence to us be seen as reducing their status as targets of moral concern. On the contrary, creators of artificial life may have special obligations to their creations, resembling those of an owner to their pet or a parent to their child.

For a field that aims to create artificial lifeforms with increasing levels of sophistication, it is crucial to consider the possible implications of our activities under an ethical perspective, and assess the moral obligations for which we should be prepared. If artificial life is larger than life, then the ethics of artificial beings should be larger than human ethics.

For context, prior to the workshop, the organizers put together this preprint, as a starting point for the workshop discussion for all invited speakers and participants. The paper was reviewed and accepted for a long presentation at ALIFE 2022 and published in the proceedings and available here. It was then awarded the Best Paper Award at the conference.

The discussions led to a range of eye-opening observations about the way ethics are being considered very differently depending on the field, and how diverse point of views may actually be conciliable in many cases. A strong direction pointed out by the discussions was that building reflections and ultimately an interdisciplinary theory on the ethics of artificial beings should be able to open up care for all forms of life, and may have direct implications on how we steer our behavior in the biosphere at large. Crucially, robot rights should not be viewed as an isolated interest, but rather a way to understand and enlarge our care for all life. The hosts, guests, and participants plan to follow up with other key actors in the AI and ALife field, to open up the research on this important topic.

Useful Links

Recording: via YouTube
Workshop webpage: ALife 2022 Workshop
Paper by Olaf Witkowski and Eric Schwitzgebel: via