Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine – Week 7

In our session this week we finished our discussion of Machine Ethics and began discussing Medical issues and technology.

We started the session by talking about intelligent machines that could be capable of thinking of their own rules. We asked who would be to blame when something goes wrong? The programmer did not code in the instructions that caused the problem, the computer took the action due to complex algorithms and artificial intelligence capabilities. But you can’t sue a machine or punish one, they don’t care.

Kerry recommended a website to us called Moral Machine. This resource gives the user a series of scenarios based on what would happen if the brakes on a driverless failed and the car was to crash into people crossing a road. You have a moral choice to make for each scenario, do you decide to crash into group 1 or group 2, and each group has different characteristics based on the people in the group. It as an interesting dilemma and at the end of the test you are given a breakdown of the results to see the types of people you favour over others. In other words, the test will tell you what types of people you value more over others.

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One of the scenarios included just cats as passengers in one car which seemed a little bit far-fetched! Although with driverless cars now current technology I suppose seeing a car with just animal passengers is now possible.

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We discussed Immanuel Kant and how he believed certain types of actions were absolutely prohibited, even if the consequences would bring about more happiness. He said that before you can act you have to ask two questions:

  1. Can I rationally will that everyone act as I propose to act? If the answer is no then you must not act.
  2. Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes. If the answer is no then you should not perform the action.

So in this case we decided that Kant would take neither course of action, so in this case Kant was not particularly useful. Kerry said that Kant would not even get in the car in the first place and you may as well just stay in bed! Kant acts without emotion. He says your brain is a logical, rational machine. If you act with emotion then you act without morality. Is it possible to leave emotion out of your decision making process? Sometimes lying is a good thing, sometimes we need to lie, but Kant says lying is never good.

We talked about how machines should be designed in the favour of humans. An example is being overpaid instead of underpaid. We used the example of an ATM machine and that they are coded to take money back if it is not claimed within a few minutes so if you forget to make the money then no one else will take it.

We then talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We discussed how ICT has helped to secure some of our basic psychological needs and opportunities to address some of our higher needs. ICT helps us to communicate quickly, freely through a variety of methods. We can easily and quickly share valuable moments and memories also using a variety of different media and documents.


We also talked about the positive aspects of computer gaming. Gaming helps build many positive characteristics including:

  • Self-knowledge
  • Friendship
  • Empathy
  • Engaging in shared activity
  • Sharing intimacy

It is true that many video games include many questionable ideas and actions and some people are increasingly worried about the violent nature of video games. However we discussed the idea of catharsis and that if you play a violent video game does this then allow people to release certain violent tendencies in a virtual world rather than in the real world.

We then moved onto a new sheet and on the topic of medicine and technology. Some of the topics we discussed were gene editing, diabetes and alzheimers. An interesting article we discussed can be found here.

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The article talks about gene editing procedures that allow people to prevent people from passing on serious medical conditions to their children. The report says that clinical trials could start soon. The process involves stopping a disorder by rewriting faulty DNA to make it healthy. It is amazing that this technology exists and that scientists will in the future be able to prevent serious illness, this of course is a great idea. However, we discussed that this technology is so new that we don’t know what the consequences will be of manipulating genes. We don’t know what the effects will be if we eradicate one disease will it cause another or make other diseases more prevalent. We talked about perfection is not perfect, it can have flaws, and these flaws can be advantageous. We continued by saying that diversity is good, there is a reason for it. Mutations can be good, we evolved through mutations as it was to our advantage.

Another interesting week of this course and 3 weeks left to go.

Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine – Week 1

My first new course for 2017 is Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine, a 10 week course at the University of Sydney.

In this opening week of the course we learnt what technology is, and isn’t, and had some interesting debates about driverless cars, human looking robots, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger and Freud.

So, what is technology?

Technology is any humanly created artefact, system or technique produced to achieve some human end or purpose. Technology is the manipulation of nature, which transforms or makes nature available for human use.

All human societies make use of different tools. The first primitive tools were used to manipulate nature in some way, such as to make fire, cook food and hunting. It is interesting to note that fire is considered a form of technology when it is produced and controlled by humans. As our use of technology has increased so our environment has changed dramatically.


The word technology also means technique. An example being the control of fire is not an artefact, but its manipulation is a technique which alters nature.

Technology is not for itself, it is a tool used to achieve something. Using Martin Heidegger’s terminology, In Order To. Heidegger exempted art from his definition because it is For-Itself.

The word technology comes from the word technê. Technê is “the set of principals, or rational method, involved in the production of an object or the accomplishment of an end; the knowledge of such principles or method; art.” It’s aim is making and doing, orientated towards producing something.


Ancient Greeks viewed art negatively and craft positively. The reason is craft is the practical application of an art, rather than art as an end in itself. Socrates and Plato also shared this view.

Another important feature of technology is that it either compensates for some lack in our own human abilities or enhances some human feature. A tool for breaking rocks compensates for our soft hands for example.

Heidegger also notes that tools are not independent entities, without their definition they are useless. All tools only make sense when connected to other tools and institutions. Heidegger’s example of a hammer which needs a workshop, nails, wood, things to build and reasons to build them.

One other really interesting point from tonight is called the uncanny valley. The concept of uncanny was developed by Sigmund Freud and means something that is familiar but is slightly strange. The uncanny valley is the hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost human like provoke feelings of revulsion and eeriness. The valley part denotes a dip in the observer’s affinity for the replica. uncanny_graph_blog.jpg

As the image above shows, the valley is shaded in grey. As realism increases so the empathetic response dips. The graph shows a few examples. This is why we don’t see more human looking robots, they just look weird and creepy.

This first week was really interesting and I think the next 9 weeks are going to further enhance my knowledge of technology and philosophy, can’t wait!