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Selfless Civilizations: Robots, Zombies, and the World to Come

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Minding the Future

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Robots are to be built as animated tools, and the possibility of their rebellion is to be avoided by imposing fundamental laws. But those laws are both ambiguous and easily subverted. Despite our inclination to attribute personality and conscious life to robots it is likelier that successful robots—most worryingly, von Neumann probes—will constitute intelligent but unconscious mechanisms for whom biological life will be either irrelevant or dangerous. A world or universe controlled entirely by such a civilization, even one that is not centralized but fragmented by the distances involved, will be effectively meaningless: here Max Tegmark’s judgement agrees with Plotinus’s, and both hint at the possibility of conceiving the real world as one understood and realized in Intellect. This real world is perhaps what robots have been supposed to miss, unless—by some miracle—they are woken up to conscious repentance.

Thanks especially to Barry Dainton and Attila Tanyi for comments on the penultimate version of this paper. I haven’t followed all of them up, because they were too interesting for a footnote!

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  1. 1.

    In the second edition Dawkins insists that though we are ‘robots’ (as described, [4, p. 25]) all such entities may after all evade their programming [4, p. 363], citing Capek’s robots to ‘prove’ it.

  2. 2.

    “1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” The claim that these also constitute the basis of ordinarily human morality is made in [6]. It is even suggested there that “every ‘good’ human being, with a social conscience and a sense of responsibility, is supposed to defer to proper authority; to listen to his doctor, his boss, his government, his psychiatrist, his fellow man” (my italics). I debunked those laws in a short essay [7].

  3. 3.

    A similar escape for humans chemically compelled to serve the “Ensemble” is proposed by Greg Egan [9, pp. 130–2]: first the Ensemble must consist of those who are certainly loyal to it (namely, those thus compelled), and secondly “it” must be defined, individually, by those loyalists themselves. “Welcome to the Reformation.”

  4. 4.

    See [15] for a history of this fashion (which was not shared by Darwin or his immediate followers).

  5. 5.

    See [22]. If they do turn out to be “human” then we shall have some reason to suspect that “humanity” is indeed in the image and likeness of God, and the real point of creation!

  6. 6.

    Watts also explores other non-typical human or near-human forms to emphasise how distant our own current conception of ourselves may be from actual human experience!

  7. 7.

    Plotinus is quoting the Homeric description of Hades, in Iliad 20.65.

  8. 8.

    See [48, pp. 254–70]. Tegmark argues that the underlying reality is entirely mathematical: an n-dimensional mathematical figure to be grasped only by intellect (and existing only in intellect).

  9. 9.

    Greg Benford perhaps seeks to represent this in the later volumes of his Galactic Center sequence, especially in [49].


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Correspondence to Stephen R. L. Clark .

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Clark, S.R.L. (2021). Selfless Civilizations: Robots, Zombies, and the World to Come. In: Dainton, B., Slocombe, W., Tanyi, A. (eds) Minding the Future. Science and Fiction. Springer, Cham.

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