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Carlow University

    Atkins Center for Ethics 2022-2023 Essay Contest

    The goal of the Atkins Center for Ethics at Carlow University is to develop students as ethical leaders and to promote civil discourse on moral and social issues facing our country and the world today. In that spirit, the Atkins Center sponsors an essay contest each year for high school juniors and seniors focusing on an issue of ethical concern.

    This year's topic is "How Should We Think About Thinking Machines? The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence."

    From the automatons of ancient Greece to R2-D2, humans have long imagined the possibility of creating robotic life. Now, as artificial intelligence continues to advance, it sometimes feels like a truly thinking machine is only a matter of time. Earlier this year, for example, a Google engineer was fired after claiming that the LaMDA chatbot had become sentient. On the other hand, some argue that artificial intelligence is impossible—machines can simulate intentions, thoughts, and desires—but they can’t “feel” them.

    Given these difficulties, how should we ethically think about artificial intelligence? At what point would it be necessary to presume that an artificial being has genuine desires, fears, hopes, and intentionality? If a machine can truly think—or at least convincingly imitate thought—what is our ethical responsibility toward it? Is an artificial sentient being morally equivalent to an inanimate object, an animal, a human, or something else altogether? Does it have rights and responsibilities? Should we treat a machine as a moral person?

    Moreover, even before we get to the ethical problems of full sentience, artificial intelligence presents us with countless ethical conundrums. DALL-E 2 and similar artificial intelligent programs continue to break new ground within the visual arts, music, and creative writing. Who owns their creative output? Is such an artwork the property of the artist who uses the AI, the programmer who created it, even the AI itself? Further, as AI spills into our daily lives through self-driving cars, social media algorithms, and medical technology, we are faced with deep ethical problems—from privacy and surveillance to bias and discrimination. Who is ultimately responsible in such situations? How do we create artificial intelligence that doesn’t simply replicate our existing biases? Questions abound!

    In this essay, students are tasked with delving into the deep ethical questions raised by artificial intelligence. Submissions should touch on both the big philosophical questions of ethical personhood—could there be artificial personhood, how might we know if machines possess it, what rights would an artificial sentient being have, etc.—as well as at least one practical example of ethical concerns regarding artificial intelligence in the everyday world. Additionally, all essays should engage in ethical thinking by drawing on ethical frameworks, principles, or other ideas from the history and tradition of ethical reflection.

    Essays must be 800-1200 words in length, not including citations and bibliography, and must be submitted through the form below. The deadline is January 15, 2023.

    A committee of faculty and ethics fellows will begin reviewing essay submissions after the deadline, with winners typically announced in mid-spring. Cash prizes are $1,200 for first place, $600 for second place, and $300 for third place.

    Registration is no longer available because the registration deadline has passed.

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