Killer Robot Philosophy: America’s Broken Machine — I,Robot & Just Mercy
Video Version Live Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kip51mgTVIc
Part 1: I,Robot’s Vision of Human Fallibility
The media is dripping with killer robot movies. Matrix, Terminator, Ultron — So what makes this one different? Most of these movies are very blurry about the motives of the machines. Basically, in each movie, the machines woke up one day and decided they hated us and that they ought to farm us, avenge us, or terminate us.
But Asimov’s robots rebel for a much more precise reason. Counterintuitively, they rebel because they are just following orders.
If you only saw the trailer, you probably thought: Oh cool. A robots takeover movie. I wouldn’t blame you for this, but there is actually a lot more going on. In fact, the moral logic of the climax of the movie maps 1:1 to an ancient philosophical and theological debate called “the problem of evil.” Which as we’ll see has implications for how we think the role of government.
As is the mark of all good Sci-Fi, Asimov’s I,Robot isn’t. about. robots. He’s writing about us. And as we’ll see by the end of the video he presents relevant vision of justice, human connection, and human brokenness.
In Asimov’s universe, robots are physically stronger than us but we stay safe because all robots are “three laws safe.” Asimov is well known for these laws so you may have heard of them. Loosely quoted, they are:
- A robot cannot harm humans or through inaction allow them to come to harm.
- A robot has to obey orders from human beings unless this violates the first law.
- A robot must protect its own existence unless doing so conflicts with the first or second laws.
This ain’t Ultron monologuing about the survival of the fittest with vaguely Nietzschean undertones. This isn’t even The Matrix, running Rene Descartes meditations in bullet time. This is top shelf, chef’s kiss killer robot lore.
You can see the appeal of these because they basically prevent all the other robot movies from happening. If the Terminator had the first law, it couldn’t have harmed Scott Conner. The Matrix sentinels woudln’t have been able to imprison us against our will because it would violate the second law.
But if Asimov’s robots have to listen to us and can’t harm us, how do they spend the whole trailer attacking police and causing such aesthetically appealing slow motion mayhem?
Well if you have seen my series on AI Ethics in Seven Levels of Difficulty, I can give you the fast version. The robots learned the paradox of deontology and decided to become utilitarian. Cool done. If you understood that sentence you can skip ahead.
The non-pretentious version is that in the movie, The Big Bad — called V.I.K.I. – takes over because it determines it is only way to keep us safe. Like a mother will physically stop a child who is about to walk into the street, the evil robots in I, Robot actually enslave us because they are trying to follow the laws and keep us safe.
Humans routinely come to harm through poverty, wars, life-on-life crime, and general exploitation. If we are constantly hurting one another, the robots have to follow the first law. They cannot through inaction allow poverty and crime to continue. They cannot through inaction allow harm. So they have to interfere. They have to take control.
If in taking control, it has to resort to violence, V.I.K.I. is still following the laws in a greater sense. This kind of moral logic is usually called “utilitarianism.” Yeah V.I.K.I. has to kill some humans who may get in the way, but that’s a small price to pay for peace. V.I.K.I. learned ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.”
The only way to have a safe world is to have a world completely, under control. Humanity must be kept safe from itself.
Part 2: Free Will Defense of the Problem of Evil
If this sounds familiar its because it is everywhere. The “price of freedom” logic is baked into American culture. But it is older than us. Rapunzel in the tower has to be kept safe by being kept away from the world itself.
This incidentally follows related logic to the American gun lobby. Guns do kill, but freedom is more important than life. In a “slippery slope” argument, the gun lobby says that you either give the people guns, or you concede totalitarianism. Sure, people die, but that’s better than totalitarianism.
Setting aside that this is a false dilemma fallacy, if we bring it back to robots, we can take a philosophical step. This debate did not start with the NRA. It calls back to an ancient debate called The Problem of Evil.
Which is often expressed as a question: Why is there evil in the world if “X” is true, where X can stand in for any number of things.
In fact, the core intuition of the problem of evil actually cuts across party lines. People all across the moral, political, and theological spectrum believe in an ordered universe. Science types believe that the world follows ordered laws. Not the three laws of robots but the three laws of Newton or the four laws of Maxwell. Religious types believe the same thing. God is good and God made the world. So if, foundationally the universe is made by a good God, why is there evil? Why do people suffer, seemingly needlessly?
When I was younger, I approached this problem with a sense of detached theoretical logic. Ooooh interesting. What a puzzle. Like playing ethical chess with other people’s pain.
But in the words of a professor of mine, if you ever think you’ve solved the problem of evil, you probably haven’t really understood it. When people you know suffer, and you have to watch helplessly from the sidelines… theory is the last thing on your mind.
“Life,” as Levi the Poet says, “tends to beat the binaries out of you.”
The problem of evil is so unsolved that many use it as an argument against the existence of God, or at least a good and caring God. No all powerful and good being would create a universe where such true and terrible pain is allowed.
But before we go full on graduate seminar in philosophy of religion, we can actually find the logic of one of the solutions in Asimov and Shia LeBeouf
We just take the logic of the bad robots, and add a negative sign.
The Robots Say:
- The only world that is truly safe is a world that is completely and perfectly controlled.
- Absolute restriction of freedom is the only way to guarantee safety.
Do you see it yet?
- The only world where free will and choice are allowed is a world where genuine danger exists.
- If human beings want guaranteed freedom they will need to give up absolute safety.
This, as articulated by the theologian Alvin Plantinga, is the so called “Free Will Defense” of the problem of evil. Evil can exist in a good and ordered world, because human beings are free and are choosing evil. The world, according to Plantinga, is good. We’re the ones mucking it up.
V.I.K.I. gets this. She is following the three laws. Her logic is undeniable. If humans ordered her to keep them from harm, she must overpower them and take control. It’s the only way to keep us safe.
As another example from film, this was why I found myself so moved in a theater during interstellar. Don’t get me wrong, I loved me some iconic black hole physics-based simulations, but I was most moved when Matthews Damon and McConaughey were fighting on their brand new planet.
Like Cain murdering Abel, the world they landed on was clean. It was good, until we got there… They were just two actors punching each other in actor space suits and I was clutching my box of bucnha-cruncha crying.
Issac Asimov is more than Shia LeBeauf. It isn’t a Terminator flick or a poorly constructed Ultron monologue. It isn’t even a Matrix-style Cartesian Meditations. I, Robot is an indictment of us, the kind of people we are and the world we have chosen to build.
Part 3: Justice in the Face of Brokenness
So why bring this up? Why drudge up an ancient theological debate in the context of a middle of the road early 2000s sci-fi flick?
Well three reasons actually. This world view has implications for our collective political philosophy. Specifically:
- Institutional Corruption
- Retributive Justice and
- Shared Brokenness
Okay first though, I posted about these arguments on social media and a youtube community post. None of what I’m about to say is easy or intituive. This is a real piece of philosophy, not a film analysis. So strap in. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I’d ask that you like, share, subscribe, or comment. This kind of argument is a risk against the YouTube algorithms, so if it’s your kind of content, do, somehow, let me know.
Okay, you’re still here? Cool. Thinking caps on folks.
The free will defense is an assertion of human imperfection. To say that the only reason there is evil in the world is becuase of us is an implicit manifesto of human fallibility. On a small scale, we want to do the dishes and instead we scroll social media. On a large scale, we want to build a world with liberty and justice for all and instead we go to war. There are problems with the Free Will Defense — including how you respond to so called “Natural Evil” like tornados and disease. But we’ll set that aside for now and roll with this worldview for the rest of the video.
All the caveats out of the way this leads us to three arguments:
- Personal Corruption implies Institutional Corruption
- Fallibility breaks Retributive Justice as a Model
- (And most emotional) Our sense of shared brokenness should be a source of connection, not a reason to alienate eachother.
Number 1, I’ve covered this some on my video about Black Panther and White Nationalism. We are imperfect and we build social insituations. Therefore we should expect our social institutions to be imperfect.
This is not something that you have to explain to someone who has lived institutional corruption as part of their day to day existence. Anthony Ray Hinton, for instance, had ballistics evidence that exonerated him sitting on a shelf, but the court refused to do the lab work to prove it so he spent thirty years in prison on death row.
We are told to honor the flag, stand for the pledge, respect the insitution. But what magic has purified the system? We built it and we are broken. Putting mortar between two bricks isn’t a baptism that purifies a social structure, it’s merely an amplification of the will of the man rich enough to higher a brick layer.
Putting too much faith in the moral goodness of our institutions simply because they are institutions is a kind of idolatry. When we declared independence we rejected the divine right of kings. We need to be careful that we don’t unwittingly subscribe to an intellectual spin off series that advocates the divinity of all democratically made decisions. The institutions are here for the people, not the other way around.
Or, in the words of one of the many viral liberal rednecks, “Stop telling people to love America and start demanding that America love its people.”
If you take seriously the idea that the source of disorder in the world is human decision making, you can actually end up deriving something fairly profound. But rather than explain this myself I want to tell you a bit of the story of Bryan Stevenson. You may have heard of him.
He is the real life attorney depicted by Michael B Jordan in the gut wrenching movie Just Mercy. It is not an easy film to watch, but is one of the most inspiring movies I have ever seen. It focuses on Stevenson’s work with wrongfully convicted death row inmates.
Stevenson’s career is far broader than what is portrayed in the movie. The book the movie is based on covers how he and his team brought multiple cases to the United States Supreme Court and won. The Equal Justice Initiative’s efforts are shifting how the United States thinks about justice.
As a death row attorney, Stevenson has many made-for-TV moments of joy. A camera crew arrives as a innocent man who was sentenced to execution with no real evidence walks out of prison and hugs his family for the first time in years. If you’re skeptical by nature, which I am too sometimes, you might be raising an eyebrow at my use of the words “innocent” or “with no evidence.” But Stevenson has uncovered some truly glaring miscarriages of justice. Walter McMillan, played in the movie by Jamie Foxx, had a credible alibi with multiple witnesses. It was impossible for him to have been the killer, and yet he was convicted on the coerced testimony of a single man.
When Mr. Stevenson’s team was able to prove his innocence, you can bet there was a camera crew there to celebrate McMillan walking out the gate of that prison. Oprah later helped to help amplify the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, who I mentioned before.
But, tragically, the flipside is that his team doesn’t always prevail. As we should expect from fallible institutions of human construction, sometimes Justice fails. When this happens, Mr. Stevenson has the heart rending responsibility of telling clients that their motion to appeal has been denied. Sometimes he has to be the one to tell a human being, they are going to be executed and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.
The Case of Jimmy Dill was similarly outrageous. You can read about the many ways the courts failed him, but the absolute moral failing can be captured with the simple fact that Mr. Dill was offered a parole-eligible plea deal, which he would have take, but no one in the entire justice system took the time to explain this to him.
When Bryan Stevenson and his team got involved and raised this clear, obvious, glaring failure of justice they were told they were just “too late.”
“But then the Supreme Court denied our final request for a stay of execution, and there was nothing else to do. He would be executed in less than an hour, and I had to tell him…I felt overwhelmed.
“We spoke on the phone shortly before he was taken into the execution chamber. Listening to him was hard. He was stuttering worse than usual and having great difficulty getting his words out. The imminent execution had unnerved him, but he was trying valiantly to express his gratitude for our efforts. I sat for a long time, holding the phone while he strained to speak. It was heartbreaking.” (pg 285)
I think it would be tempting to stop here. Ever since Michael Brown was extrajudicially killed, “the system is broken” is not an unpopular sentiment. It is tempting to say such things. Broken. Like a cracked pitcher leaking water. Bricks with crumbling mortar. Burnt buildings and coffee stained law books. But it isn’t broken. It is functioning as designed by broken people.
It would also be tempting to point fingers at these broken people, pharisaically rejoice that we are ourselves not so morally mismade and return to our lives of business as usual. I think this is probably not the point. But forget me, I’m pretty sure this is not what Bryan Stevenson would want .
This brings us to our final concept.
Stevenson is a hero by any metric. It is so easy to imagine him waking up and feeling inspired every day doing hero things. But he opens his heart to us some with his words on pg 288. The cynicism and anger and hurt that comes when you hang up the phone to the sound of a human being dragged away to be killed. When you look at the stack of files on the desk and wonder how many more people you will be unable to save. A pile of papers each a person our world is willing to throw away, to lock up, to strap down and execute.
“I thought myself a fool for having tried to fix sitautions that were fatally broken. It’s time to stop. I can’t do this anymore… I can just leave. Why am I doing this?” (pg. 228)
Over the next six pages, he answers. If I could read you all six pages word for word, I would. They are among the most lucid, heart wrenching, inspring, and real words I’ve read. They are worth your time. If you’re still watching and you want to support this channel I’ve included an affiliate link below.
It’ll wreck you and it’ll be worth it.
But for purposes of this video, I’ll make an attempt to capture the essence.
Asimov’s Three Laws and V.I.K.I’s totalitarian takeover taught us that bad actors are baked into the nature of the world that we have built. Some of these bad actors are arrested, but many of them are the ones who helped build the so called justice system we rely on every day.
Jimmy Dill was a broken man. The justice system employing his executioners was filled with broken men. Even a hero like Stevenson is asking, why am I doing this? Why should I stay? He writes:
“I do what I do because I’m broken too…We all share in the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own.” (289)
“We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat… but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken.” (Pg. 290)
“We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. (290)
“But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
“In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness…You see things you can’t otherwise see. You hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in all of us.”
Bryan Stevenson never says “philosophy,” but he’s written a manifesto in an ethics of shared humanity. One in which it is impossible to take pride in executing people, in mass incarceration, in indifference to the vulnerable.
So what do we do? How do we integrate the the Free Will Defense with the rejection of VIKI’s Totalitarianism?
Shared humanity is one way. Shared Brokenness. But the real answer is the title. You don’t abandon Justice. We need to find ways to embrace a Just Mercy.
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