Can Artifacts be Proxies of Volition? Thomistic Analysis of Care Robots
Andre Chavez, PhD student, Saint Louis University
Exponential advances in AI learning and simulated conversation have opened the floodgates to new applications of social AI technology. For example, affective developmental robotics learns from its environment, makes decisions according to programmed ‘values,’ and simulates human behavior and relationships. Increasingly, social robots equipped with affective developmental AI, colloquially called ‘care’ or ‘companion’ robots, are being marketed for elderly populations as a solution to the rising demand for home health care, a cheaper alternative to nurses, and an extension of the amount of time spent living independently–that is, without a human caregiver. Among their functions are social and emotional care, including conversation and soothing. A common defense of their use if that they still meet the standard of care because simulated empathy yields as good patient outcomes of genuine empathy. For St. Thomas Aquinas, an act of empathy, or compassion, entails an act of volition, which is a power of the soul; clearly, robots lack souls, so they also lack wills of their own. Nevertheless, insofar as they instantiate the values that are programmed into them—in this case, care—it could be said that they exhibit a kind of ‘volition by proxy.’ If their tendency towards certain kinds of actions is an extension of the volitional act of the person(s) that programmed them, then these robot actions are tokens of a type of human volitional act. In this presentation, I consider whether, for Aquinas, artifacts can be proxies of volition in such a manner and whether it could truly be said that care robots meet the standard of care in Catholic health care services. To that end, I first discuss the current state of care robots and argue for the need of a Catholic bioethical response moderated by Pope Francis’ reflections of compassion and the technocratic paradigm. Then, I present the ‘Virtual Presence Argument,’ which draws from Aquinas’ understanding of compassion, volition, and presence-by-power and espouses to be sufficient to license their use within a Catholic standard of care. Finally, I refute the argument by arguing that care robots nevertheless fail to meet the standard of compassion because their volition by proxy is not attuned to the particularity of patients; rather, it is a general disposition toward compassion in the abstract sense.