Reprogramming the Corporation
In a 1942 short story, Isaac Asimov, wrote what have come to be known as the “The Three Laws of Robotics”. These laws have fascinated generations of fans but they have also found their way into real science, particularly now as we make the first tentative steps towards artificial intelligence.
They are as follows:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The more I think about these laws the more brilliant they become. They represent an almost, complete, cognitive trap and one can see that if a robot existed and if they were programmed with the three laws, it would be very difficult for them to become anything other than a force for good.
In a way, the three laws are Asimov’s answer to the classic Frankenstein story. There are literally thousands of those. Humans, through hubris, avarice or even the desire to save the planet, create something that they cannot control and the result is tragedy.
Asimov solved the Frankenstein dilemma with three simple laws. He solved it with programming.
You might think that Frankenstein’s monster, the powerful automaton that walks the earth leaving devastation and destruction in it’s wake, is a myth but I don’t. I believe we have created monsters far more powerful than anything Mary Shelly could have imagined.
They have knocked down mountains, burned forests, forced whole populations to work in slave-like conditions and even started wars. They are more powerful than many governments and they exist, for no other reason than to serve their own ends.
Our Frankenstein’s monster is the corporation and if we are ever to solve our planet’s problems we must look long and hard at the way they are programmed.
In almost every set of corporate bylaws you will find some version of the following sentence.
“The _____ corporation has a fiduciary responsibility to it’s shareholders.”
In Asimov’s terms, this “fiduciary responsibility” is the first law.
In corporate-speak the first law is translated as “The Bottom Line”.
With that programming in place why are we surprised that corporations will do just about anything to increase their profits including mass layoffs, unsafe products, pollution and the manipulation of both the media and government in the pursuit of their very simple goals?
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. When Corporations were first established, in the late 17th century, they were chartered by the government for the sole purpose of providing a public service, such as building a canal or a hospital. Most of them were in operation for only a limited time and when the job they were chartered for was completed they simply disbanded.
However, the corporation dedicated to the public good bares little resemblance to the multi-national giants which run our economy today.
The government granted charters disappeared in the early 1800’s, essentially changing the first law from “public good” to “Bottom line.”
From that point on corporations in the United States have pressured congress and the courts to increase their power starting with the1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which used the fourteenth amendment (originally designed to grant rights to newly freed slaves) to give human rights to corporations and culminating with last years decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In it, The Supreme Court essentially ruled that corporations have same the constitutional rights and privileges as a person including, the first amendment rights of free speech. Sine, in the modern era, money is considered to equal speech, “Citizens United” gives corporations the right to use their massive coffers to influence elections and government.
The reasoning behind these decisions is that corporations are, essentially, groups of people, and as such should have all the rights and privileges that individuals have.
However, while individuals use their rights for a myriad of motivations, corporations use those rights for only one. The bottom line.
One could argue that corporations are no different form us in this. Since all of us (not just corporations) are motivated by self interest.
However, humans are an exceedingly complex species with a multiplicity of complex and often contradictory motivations. We care about our self interest, yes but we also care about a myriad of things which are sometimes at direct odds to our personal needs and desires. We care about children, community, country, religion, art, TV shows and football teams. We donate to charities, help out our friends and volunteer at our kids schools. In fact, if you could probably spend the rest of your life trying to to list all the things humans care about.
Try telling, a mom sacrificing for her child or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade that humans are motivated by simple self interest.
Is there a bottom line for a humans? A first law? I don’t know but I trust that most people will seek a balance between what is in their interest and what is right. Without that trust, democracy simply cannot survive.
As long as the first law of corporations is the bottom line there will be no moral balance. They will pursue their own interests with all the power at their disposal even if it means loosing hell on the Earth.
We need new programming and we need it now.
Here are my three laws. They’re not perfect but they are a start.
1. A corporation must not knowingly do lasting damage to the planet or the people who live on it.
2. A corporation has a responsibility to the health and well being of the people it employs.
3. A corporation has a fiduciary responsibility to it’s shareholders as long as that responsibility does not interfere with the First or Second Law.
Some people will be shocked when they look at these laws. They will think, “How can we make big corporations promise to care for the planet or their employees.” Believe it or not, I had the same reaction when I came up with these laws.
And, in a way, that is the most shocking thing of all. It is a sign of how warped our sensibilities have become when asking for moral responsibility from the most powerful entities on the planet seems crazy.
The truth is we have loosed soulless automatons upon the Earth far more powerful than anything Asimov could have imagined and if we don’t find a way to reprogram them with responsibility and compassion, they will destroy us.