Let’s imagine a few years in the future. Say, 40-50 years. In that time, general artificial intelligence is invented, and many people can afford to buy one for themselves. Suddenly, a pretty significant chunk of the population is using AI to drive their cars, choose flattering outfits, compose operas, and are doing things that right now we pay an awful lot of people to do. If you could afford AI, in this world, life would be pretty damned idyllic. Sure, you’d have to manage them, guide them, correct them when they make mistakes, but all in all you would have to do a lot less work than in the time before general AI was invented. Now imagine that suddenly someone said you can’t own your phone. After all, your phone has an AI, which deserves all the same rights as people do. How would you feel then? Something that people have owned for as long as they’ve known it existed suddenly has rights of its own, and buying and selling it is suddenly illegal? What would you do? What would your kids do?
In case it isn’t obvious, I’m drawing a parallel to slavery. People owned slaves for generations. It would probably feel completely natural to them to own black people, the same way they owned cows and horses. Sure, you might have heard some places don’t allow slaves, but it doesn’t make sense to allow horses in museums either, so you don’t pay too much attention. Sure, some people say that owning another human being is wrong, but everyone you personally know says it’s fine, so you can disregard what a few crazies hundreds or thousands of miles away are saying. What do they know about life where you live? Not to mention that if it were wrong to own slaves, your entire way of life would be destroyed. That’s something most people never think about, not even as a hypothetical. Even today people love watching movies about various forms of the apocalypse, but not a lot of people consider what would happen if their own mundane, day to day lives suddenly could not exist any more. We have no frame of reference to even start to consider it. If I had to guess, I would imagine a slave owner’s first reaction to learning he couldn’t own slaves wouldn’t be anger, it would be confusion. Anger might be a close second, but at first they would probably feel confused at someone telling them their entire world is being upended.
So how will the world deal when suddenly we realize that creatures we brought into the world suddenly deserve rights of their own, and aren’t mere chattel? One way might be to look at how white people reacted to being unable to own slaves anymore. A war was fought for the right to keep slaves. Sure, you’ll hear revisionist historians say that it wasn’t about owning slaves, it was about states’ rights. As best I can tell, that’s true. It’s just the only right they cared about was the right to own slaves. After the Civil War ended the first thing slave owning states did was pass laws making slavery legal in all but name. When that didn’t work, they passed laws keeping black people “separate but equal.” It took a few more decades, but finally those laws are off the books, for the most part. We haven’t solved all the problems yet. There is still systematic bias in policing, hiring, education, even dating. Slowly, ever so slowly with many steps backwards, we are moving passed these issues. This piece is long enough. Next time let’s see if we can look at how we change our minds in relation to massive societal changes.