This development promises to herald in a new era of the science of consciousness. Apparently, a scientist has grown a neural net of rat cells that can control a jet in a computer simulation. There is a brief story here.
Of course, it was not announced with the fanfare and acclaim that such an “accomplishment” deserves. Why did I put the term accomplishment in quotes? Because this is starting to get scary.
With a few caveats, I am pro-life. Although I admit that it may be difficult to understand why one would want to classify a single-celled organism as a human being, I am very confident that a baby that has been carried to term is a human being and that partial birth abortion is wrong. Now, science has devised yet another way to assault the sanctity of life. These aren’t computer circuits, these are organic neural nets. Granted, the nets here were developed from rat cells, but they don’t have to be. Are we to allow neural nets to be developed using human cells? I think not. Further, one example of a potential use of this technology that was given is the flying of unmanned planes piloted by “living computers.” Let’s be clear here: we are no longer talking about computers at all, at least not in any traditional sense. A more accurate description would be a cybernetic organism: the plane would act as its body and the neural network would act as its brain. The other possibilities of this technology listed in the article are subject to similar arguments. There are definite moral concerns here. If these things are alive, who are we to say we can sacrifice them for our own ends? This is not a simple question and it can’t be refuted by saying, “Yeah, but they’re only rat cells.” A rat cannot pilot a plane. A rat that understands “altitude” and “mathematics” is no longer a rat. The point is that we may be developing conscious beings that rival us or even surpass us in cognitive ability. And, traditionally, it has been our cognitive ability that has been our justification for the killing and use of lower animals. We may find our situation reversed very soon.
To be fair, we don’t know if a neural net is truly conscious or not. Despite what some claim, consciousness is not clearly understood. To date, no one has developed a knock-down certain test for consciousness besides observing behavior which “seems” to indicate that an entity is conscious. That said, we might be getting in too deep, too fast. The advance of technology is accelerating, and we are ill-equipped to handle all the moral questions it raises.