Virtual evil

What does it mean to be truly evil? Cognitive scientist Selmer Bringsjord is developing a virtual human that embodies their evolving definition of "evil." In development for several years, the character, named "E," is designed to interact with humans in a way that sounds similar to a chatbot, albeit a really demented chatbot. Bringsjord is even considering the ethics and "danger" of making an evil software program. (Brett Leonard, your meme is ready.) From Scientific American:
 Media Inline Defining-Evil 1 To be truly evil, someone must have sought to do harm by planning to commit some morally wrong action with no prompting from others (whether this person successfully executes his or her plan is beside the point). The evil person must have tried to carry out this plan with the hope of "causing considerable harm to others," Bringsjord says. Finally, "and most importantly," he adds, if this evil person were willing to analyze his or her reasons for wanting to commit this morally wrong action, these reasons would either prove to be incoherent, or they would reveal that the evil person knew he or she was doing something wrong and regarded the harm caused as a good thing...

Following the path of a true logician, Bringsjord's interest in the portrayal of virtuousness and evil in literature led to his interest in software that helps writers develop ideas and create stories; this, in turn, spurred him to develop his own software for simulating human behavior, both good and odious, says Barry Smith, a distinguished professor of bioinformatics and ontology at the State University of New York at Buffalo who is familiar with Bringsjord's work. "He's known as someone on the fringe of philosophy and computer science."

Bringsjord and Smith both have an interest in finding ways to better understand human behavior, and their work has attracted the attention of the intelligence community, which is seeking ways to successfully analyze the information they gather on potential terrorists. "To solve problems in intelligence analysis, you need more accurate representations of people," Smith says. "Selmer is trying to build really good representations of human beings in all of their subtlety."
Are You Evil? Profiling That Which Is Truly Wicked


  1. A director once told me, in trying to explain the actions of Iago in Othello that anyone who commits an act they know know is evil is actually evil. Although, to be honest, I think there’s a lot of ways that the isn’t true.

    As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  2. As a moral nihilist I’m not certain I see any benefit from this kind of research due to the logical fallacies it’s founded upon. How is anything to be learned from a computer analyzing statements which are inherently not truth-apt?

    Others might disagree but I see this as akin to using Deep Blue to calculate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  3. #11 – thank you

    “He’s known as someone on the fringe of philosophy and computer science.” –> sounds about accurate

  4. Evil is a deeply flawed concept. #11 actually raises a good example – the conditions they are usuing to describe “evil” apply to a rather large portion of children. By the same token, Hitler wouldn’t qualify. He considered his policies fully justified (and thus not wrong), and he was coherant. Twisted, but coherant.

    I think what they are essentially working on is Sim Charles Manson.

    Otherwise, it sounds like they are trying to live out a movie:

  5. Anyone here play fable or fable 2? Great games. An interesting thing I’ve noticed, is that in reaction to my “evil” character the people around me sometimes do evil things to me (some lady kicked my dog!) despite the fact that they’re not evil. Their evil deeds cause me to do evil things back (i had to kill that lady), which just causes people to hate me even more and causeing me to do even more evil things.

    can evil really be defined? I personally think it’s all just a matter of perspective. Either way look into Fable….it’s totally worth it =)

  6. Incorporating this into an AI in a game would be a great improvement on current games. Thus, I can definitely see a positive use for this technology. If you can play a game where you figure out the best way to deal with evil opponents, then you will likely be able to take some aspect of those skills with you into the real world.

  7. He actually looks like Vinnie Jones, and why can’t it be a woman or is he making an Evil man and Eve an evil woman?

  8. dear lord….didn’t anyone take notes during Virtuosity!

    why must life immidate poorly executed art?

    where’s my Dali wrist watch!

  9. That guy does not look evil at all. So are they incorporating this E guy into a video game? I’m lost…

  10. I think “evil” is way too general a concept to be captured in this way. Besides, much of what we would term “evil” boils down to “selfish” or “sadistic” or some other more clearly defined behavior.

    That said, I’d love to see someone develop a version of Eliza that begins to mock and shame the user after a dozen or so lines.

  11. Evil is a religious concept. It is not a descriptive term, any more than “beautiful” is descriptive.
    So general a term is useless for conveying info about the World/Cosmos, but it does reveal the speakers’ bias (for the use of religious concepts and/or descriptors based on religious concepts, in discriminating amongst human beings, in the instant case).
    How about “designing” a virtual “saint”?
    How about “designing” a virtual virtuous person?
    How about doing some good for other people instead of wasting time on this “useful only to those who wish to control others” bullshit “research”?

  12. Further, the ways that terms like “beautiful” and “evil” are used in a particular society or group tells us much about that group, as well as the individual, as Iaminnocent observes in #16 above.
    What was “evil” to the Victorian Gentleman may not be what is “evil” to the German of say 1937 or the American of 1969 San Francisco.
    But what those people, or indeed any group, considers to be “beautiful” or “evil” serves as a good way to characterize the group. These are culturally relative terms….a species of moral relativism, I suppose…
    The attempts to define these terms usually devolves to a sort of “group agreement” as to what those terms “mean” or should denote for that group. Can’t be helped what with the participants being of necessity bound to the present culture.

  13. So wait.

    Someone who earnestly holds to the belief that they are the only person in the world who matters cannot, under this system, be evil because they do not violate their own personal morality?

    Something seems a bit off about that.

  14. #23 – “If you can play a game where you figure out the best way to deal with evil opponents, then you will likely be able to take some aspect of those skills with you into the real world.”

    Sorry, I don’t know many resumes that read “defeated King Koopa by running underneath him”… or “figured out how to navigate dungeon 8 to shoot Gannon with a Silver Arrow”.

    I could, however, buy that argument that stopping an AI evil might spur interest in criminal justice, thereby providing a spark to take classes and further education.

  15. Perhaps the evil person is one who performs acts which they themselves classify as immoral according to the Categorical Imperative. Things like consuming more than one’s own proportionate share of energy. Then one need not invoke religion to define it.

  16. can we agree that eating human babies is evil? For humans at least? Presuming no extenuating circumstances of course.

  17. But Takuan, there are always extenuating circumstances. I was really really hungry, after all, and that’s because the Man has been keeping me down, of course.


  18. Well “evil” as an adjective is fine, but as a noun, well…the term has religious/metaphysical roots which cannot be ignored. I don’t think it’s a valid ontological categorization, but it masquerades as such.”Evil” , like “good” , is a term which in the English language easily slides between its adjectival and noun forms. Consider:
    It is an evil… he is evil…that’s an evil act…the evil that men/women do…that’s an evil thought…etc.
    Does more evil flow from an actor’s ignorance or his intent? What’s history say?
    “Evil” is a consequence, I think. The call (ie is this/he evil?)is made of necessity after the fact, and the actor gets his tincture from the act. Evil as such is not a cause, but descriptive of the consequences of action (and equally often of inaction).

  19. Human evil is not abstract. It is horribly real. There are people out there who LIKE to hurt other people, who relish causing pain and suffering.

    Some of the more flamboyant ones, are what used to be called psychopaths, but that was changed to sociopath and nowadays the term is antisocial personality disorder. Sounds much less threatening, doesn’t it? Still, be afraid, be very afraid. Call it what you will, it is evil.

    There are also those with narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. Inward-acting BPDs are primarily a danger to themselves, but severe outward-acting ones are as nasty and dangerous as any psychopath. Pity their families. Pity, especially their children. DO NOT LOOK AWAY.

    Those who aver that evil is merely some kind of concept, philosophical or religious or otherwise, have not looked in the eyes of someone with one of these disorders, eyes full of rage and hate and the intent to do harm.

    You look in those eyes and you realize, with a shock, that there is nothing abstract about evil and that some people simply are EVIL. Those who believe otherwise are both lucky to have been sheltered from it, and naive.

  20. ah, an entity after my own heart.

    For any wishing to model evil; try Dr.Hare’s check-list and also use internet trolls.

  21. There’s a semantic argument that you can’t do anything you think is wrong – because effectively what is wrong is something that you shouldn’t do. I don’t really buy that, but I think hunt for platonic evilness may not be the right approach.

    People who, for eg, deliberately hurt other people for fun, tend to think they’re justified.

    Similarly, the belief that the rules don’t apply to oneself isn’t precisely incoherent. Just wrong.

    Also, I submit that if a really talented evil person where operating a web chat, he would be charming and loveable.

  22. Pipenta I think they are just bad people, calling them “evil” only dehumanizes them for whatever reason. For punishment or correction for the offender, for warning and to generate fear amongst others.
    There are some very bad people in this world, and they have severely hurt people I love.
    But they are not “evil”, they are just bad.
    I take it “evil” in your sense is incurable, the evil done will characterize the “evil-doer” forever as being herself “evil”.
    Not a very religious (ie hopeful, good) outcome from the use of a religious ontological category.
    let’s see if I can get at my point in another way…
    Evil exists. But people are not themselves evil, even though they do evil things. “Evil” is descriptive, and can not serve to describe the essential nature of a person, but rather a subset of a person’s motivations or actions.
    The use of the term “evil” as a term capturing a person’s essence allows people who have classified others as being ‘evil” to treat them inhumanely and savagely, and very badly (not to say such treatment is itself an evil if just, but if the accused is in fact innocent…..).
    “Evil”, a term more useful in generating prejudice, and intensifying the zeal of punishment, than in describing or dealing with the dangerous and violent amongst us.
    A term useful for comic books and fables, not for society in its struggle against the bad and vicious, the misguided and insane, the violent and the savage.

  23. what is a human? Is a primate of human phenotype but lacking the mechanism for conscience “human”?

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