Stories and Plays about
Ethical and Social Implications of AI

Richard G. Epstein
Department of Computer Science
West Chester University of PA West Chester, PA 19383

Curriculum Descant
From ACM Intelligence Magazine
Volume 11, Number 3, Fall 2000
ACM Press


A central issue in any discussion of the ethical and social implications of artificial intelligence (AI) is the appropriate role of intelligent systems in the world that we are creating. Can intelligent systems potentially threaten the vitality of human consciousness? Can intelligent systems "steal" vital capabilities and skills from humanity? Over the past several years I have been writing stories and plays that address the ethicall and social implications of AI. These stories and plays are available through my AI Stories website ( I hope that professors who teach artificial intelligence, computer ethics, or the social implications of computing will use these stories and plays in their courses.

The AI Stories Web project began as a story about the future that I wrote for my book, The Case of the Killer Robot (Epstein 1997).The Killer Robot is a fictitious scenario that uses various written media (e.g., newspaper stories and magazine interviews) to tell the story of how a programming error led to the death of a robot operator. One of the reviewers liked the future story and said that he would like to see more stories about the future.

Consequently, I embarked on a new project --to create a portrait of the future (circa 2028) using a variety of print media (e.g., newspaper articles, book reviews, television infomercial transcripts, magazine interviews, commencement addresses). The purpose of this project was to provide professors with materials that they could use to teach and discuss the ethical and social implications of computer technology, especially artificial intelligence and virtual reality (VR). I call this collection of stories Sunday, May 14, 2028. Stories that specifically relate to AI and VR are available on the AI Stories Web. I will briefly introduce these stories and two plays that are available at the aforementioned website.

The 37 stories in the AI Stories Web are organized according to the domain of human experience that is affected by the technology being discussed. These subject domains include Business and Commerce, Human Relationships, Privacy and Personal Security, Philosophy and Thought, Medicine, Government and the Law, Education, Culture and the Arts, Psychology, Spirituality, and Ethics and Values.

One story that gets to the heart of the matter is "The Great Brain Robbery." This story discusses the impact of computer technology (especially, artificial intelligence) in a broad social context. The story is told through an interview with Professor Lowe-Tignoff (who also appeared in the Killer Robot book). He discusses his belief that intelligent systems (again, he is speaking from the perspective of 2028) are stealing human capabilities in various domains, including government, medicine, and the arts. He refers to many of the systems that are described in detail elsewhere in the AI Stories Web. A contrary perspective is given in the story "Innocence and Knowledge". This story takes the form of an interview with the best-selling 2028 author, Banki Yukamanda, who argues that AI represents the dawn of true human freedom, that is, freedom from the burden of knowledge. He argues that AI represents a return to innocence for the human race.

In the Ethics and Values section we read about the Berkeley Ethics Advisor. At issue here is whether this expert system, which surpasses all human experts in its knowledge of ethics, is merely an advisor or whether it is pre-empting ethical decision-making in human beings. In the Culture and the Arts section we read about the world premiere of Tchaikovsky's Seventh Symphony by the Philadelphia Orchestra. This symphony was written by an expert system, TCHAIKOVSKY, which attempts to embody the knowledge and psychology of the historical composer. The TCHAIKOVSKY system also tries to anticipate how the real life Tchaikovsky might have evolved musically had he lived to compose a seventh symphony. The world premiere of Tchaikovsky's Seventh Symphony is such a tremendous success that some people are concerned that expert systems might replace human composers. How will this affect the human passion for musical creativity?

Many AI and VR systems are described in the AI Stories Web. The stories range from fairly straightforward (and sometimes humorous) news accounts of events that are enabled by AI (e.g., the hijacking of a pilotless commercial airliner) to much more philosophical discussions such as the interview (mentioned above) with Banki Yukamanda. The intention is to provide professors with a resource that they can use to stimulate classroom discussion of the ethical and social issues implicit in AI and VR.

Quite a few of the stories in Sunday, May 14, 2028, like a few of the stories in the Killer Robot, take the form of scripts (e.g., infomercials, television program transcripts, and magazine and television interviews). Several professors have written to me that they have used scripts from the Killer Robot as dramatic readings in their computer ethics courses with great success.

This past year I wrote two plays for presentation at professional conferences. One of the plays is about AI and the other is about VR. Both of these plays are available on the AI Stories Web.

The first play, "Mad Max: Beyond Turing Drone" which was written for the Future of the Turing Test Conference held at Dartmouth College in January 2000. The conference was the site of the somewhat controversial Loebner Prize competition. The play was presented (as a reading) by Dartmouth College students at the Conference banquet as an after dinner entertainment; the audience's response was positive. "Mad Max" focuses on whether the kind of intelligence that is implicit in the Turing Test is related to what we call "consciousness" or "sentience." What are the implications if a computer system claims to be a sentient being?

"ElderCare VR," the second play, was written for the Computer Ethics and Philosophical Enquiry (CEPE) 2000 Conference held at Dartmouth College during July 2000. The play also was presented (as a reading) at the Conference banquet as after-dinner entertainment. ElderCare VR is about the use of virtual reality to keep nursing home patients entertained. It raises issues about identities in cyberspace, identity theft, and the impact of virtual reality upon human relationships. The audience responded enthusiastically to the play.

Mad Max and ElderCare VR are about 1 hour and 10 minutes long. My experience with these plays has convinced me that theatrical presentations can make a dramatic (excuse the pun) contribution at professional conferences.

This is truly an exciting time for Computer Science and especially for Artificial Intelligence. This summer I read a book called a book called Jump Time (Houston, 2000). It contains a beautiful chapter about the remarkable figure that the Iroquois call the Man from the North (or Deganawidah, a name that is considered holy by the Iroquois people). The Man from the North ended centuries of violence and bloodshed among five Native American tribes. At the end of his struggle to establish his three primary objectives (Righteousness, Health, and Creative Power), the Man from the North organized a democratic and wise political system. Here is how Jean Houston describes this ultimate achievement:

Deganawidah also provided the nation with a pattern for meetings of the Great Council. Each opened with a prayer of thanksgiving to the Earth and to all that was in it. 'I thank you for the Earth. I thank you for the waters. I thank you for the corn and the harvest'. This exhilaration of thanksgiving would warm the people's hearts with gratitude, making problems easier to address. And there were to be no short-term solutions. Among the Council's rules was that no decision was to be made without considering its effects unto the seventh generation to come. (Houston, 2000, p. 167, emphasis mine).

We need this kind of consciousness in the field of computer technology (and in other technological fields). We need to consider the effects of our technological innovations far into the future: "unto the seventh generation to come." We can start to achieve this by discussing the ethical and social implications of AI and Virtual Reality in the relevant courses.

1. Epstein, Richard (1997). The Case of the Killer Robot, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 242 pp.
2. Houston, Jean (2000). Jump Time: Shaping Your Future in a World of Radical Change, Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 291 pp. 1 4


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About Curriculum Descant
Curriculum Descant has been a regular column in ACM's Intelligence magazine (formerly published as ACM SIGART's Bulletin). The column is edited by Deepak Kumar. The column features short essays on any topic relating to the teaching of AI from any one willing to contribute. If you would like to contribute an essay, please contact Deepak Kumar.