NYU’s Mind, Ethics, and Policy Program Will Address Questions Surrounding Non-Human Minds

Work Will Better Inform Our Understanding of Animals and Artificial Intelligence

New York University’s “Mind, Ethics, and Policy Program,” to launch in the fall of 2022, will conduct pioneering research on the nature and intrinsic value of non-human minds, including those of animals and artificial intelligences (AIs).

“Scholars with an interest in the mind have primarily focused on humans,” says Jeff Sebo, a professor in NYU’s Department of Environmental Studies, who will direct the program. “But this focus can be limiting—the global population of nonhumans is much more varied and numerous than the global population of humans.

“Mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes all have different forms of life. And the population of invertebrates includes everyone from octopuses, who have highly complex and distributed cognitive systems, to insects, many of whom exhibit behavioral flexibility, social learning, and the capacity for positive and negative experiences. We need to improve our understanding of animal minds so we can make informed decisions about how to treat other animals.”

The program’s affiliated NYU faculty will include philosophy professors David Chalmers, an expert on consciousness, and Ned Block, who studies philosophy of mind, as well as computer scientist and linguist Samuel Bowman, animal welfare scholar Becca Franks, NYU Stern School of Business Professor Joshua Lewis, who examines altruism, and bioethicists S. Matthew Liao and Claudia Passos, professors in NYU School of Global Public Health.

The program’s creation also comes at a time when AI continues to develop and affect our daily lives in ways not previously imaginable, often through advances in “deep learning,” potentially leading to a global population of artificial beings that is even more varied and numerous than the global population of biological beings.

“If and when conscious or sentient AIs come into existence, humans will have created them, directly or indirectly,” notes Sebo. “Humans are already developing AIs for a wide range of purposes, including healthcare, education, entertainment, and national defense. Should these AIs develop the capacity to experience happiness, suffering, and other such states, the world will likely contain a vast number of them at that point.”

The NYU Mind, Ethics, and Policy Program aims to conduct work that can address larger questions that have previously been understudied or not considered at all—What beings are conscious? What kind of moral, legal, and political status should particular beings have?

“These questions require us to confront some of the hardest problems in science, philosophy, and law,” observes Sebo. “By studying other minds in these ways, we can move closer to fundamental truths about all minds, including our own. We can also develop moral, legal, and political frameworks that allow policymakers to represent the interests and rights of everyone affected by their actions and policies, including non-human animals and, quite possibly, AIs.”

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