When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.


When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?


A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.