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In the European and North American tradition, a thing is natural insofar as its existence does not depend on human intervention, while something is artificial if its existence depends on human activity. From this perspective, artificiality extends not just to some physical objects but also to intellectual phenomena such as science, art, and technology—to the extent that they are characteristic of human life. With regard to strictly physical artifice, Aristotle, in Physics, further notes that unlike natural objects, artifacts do not have internal sources of motion and rest. If a bed were to sprout, what would come up would not be another bed, but an oak tree (Book 2.1). In relation to both these extrinsic and intrinsic features, it has also been common to assess artifice, in comparison with nature, as a diminished level of reality, and sometimes as less valuable. The ethics of artifacts has usually been to argue their lesser intrinsic value but their greater extrinsic or instrumental value insofar as they benefit humans and moderate a sometimes harsh experience of nature.

From Nature to Technology and Back

Nevertheless it is necessary to distinguish at least two types of artificiality. For instance, Aristotle again distinguishes those technics that help nature do more effectively or abundantly what it already does to some extent on its own and those that construct objects that would not be found at all in nature if it were not for human ingenuity. The former or what might be called type A artifacts are associated with the techniques of agriculture, medicine, and education. The latter or type B artifacts are associated with architecture and more modern technologies. But type B artifacts need not always create things not found in nature such as right-angle buildings. Using technology it is also possible to create replacements or substitutes for natural objects in the form, for example, of artificial grass, artificial kidneys, and even artificial intelligence. The term synthetics is also sometimes applied to this class of artifacts, as with synthetic oil or synthetic wood. It is thus necessary to distinguish type B(1) and type B(2) artifice, and because of the special features of type B(2) artifacts it is useful to coin the term naturoids. Naturoids may include a variety of artifacts, from automatons, robots, and androids to humanoids, bionic humans, and more.

The field of naturoids is greatly advanced in the early twenty-first century thanks to developments in physics, chemistry, biology, materials science and technology, electronics, and computer science. Nevertheless its roots are quite ancient because, as Derek de Solla Price emphasizes, human history "begins with the deep-rooted urge of man to simulate the world about him through the graphic and plastic arts" (de Solla Price 1964, p. 8). Well-known are the efforts of eighteenth-century mechanics to build machines that would often mimic certain living systems, as in the cases of Jacques de Vaucanson, Julien Offray de Lamettrie, and Pierre Jacquet-Droz, as well as Karel Capek's image of a robot in the early twentieth century. Twenty-first century naturoids cover a wide range of machines, including artificial body parts and organs, advanced robots, and reproductions of other physical objects or processes—such as stone, grass, smell, and speech—and, on a software level, artificial intelligence or life.

Genetic engineering offers even more dramatic prospects, but in a different direction from naturoids' tradition. In fact, humans are able to change the architecture of DNA, but the final result is a quite natural system, though possibly unusual. At the contrary, a naturoid, even if built by means of nanotechnology, comes always from an analyical design within which all the components are replacements of the corresponding natural parts. Nevertheless, a new reality could come from mixed systems such as bionic ones, where natural subsystems are put at work along with artificial devices giving birth to fascinating and unexperienced problems even from an ethical point of view.

Embodied Ethics

Artificiality has often been criticized as opposed to the natural and the naturally human, and also for its unintended social, legal, and ethical consequences. Such attitude, which recalls the suspicion of sorcery directed at the mechanicians of the Renaissance, takes on a new form in the present. As Edward Tenner (1996) has argued, artifacts have a tendency, not unlike ill-behaved pets, to bite back through what he calls "the revenge of unintended consequences" (Tenner 1996).

However in discussions of unintended consequences—which is often taken as a fundamental ethical problem of artifacts—little effort has been made to distinguish among the types of artificiality already mentioned. In fact, while type I artifacts (such as pencils, rifles, cars, and cathode-ray tubes) return to human beings responsibility for their uses, type B artifacts, especially type B(2) artifacts or naturoids, as forms of objects and processes in nature, tend to embody ethical models in their own architecture.

The famous Three Laws of Robotics, proposed by Isaac Asimov, illustrate this phenomenon. Yet in fact every naturoid includes at its core not only some image of the natural exemplar it aims to recreate, but also its ideal function. For instance, an artificial organ embodies both the current knowledge of the natural organ and the views regarding its correct functioning in human physiology and even within human society. The same may be said for artificial intelligence programs, artificial life simulations, virtual reality devices, and other attempts to give birth to the entities of posthumanism.

Once some implicit or explicit ethical model is assigned to a naturoid, it will appear to be an actor itself, and people will interact with it as if they were interacting with something natural or social. This explains why some scholars such as Latour have begun to think that machines "challenge our morality" (quoted in Margolin 2002, p. 117) while others predict that they will soon be considered responsible actors.

The Third Reality

Unlike technologies that do not aim to produce anything immediately present in nature—that is, type B(1) artifacts—naturoid or type B(2) technologies emerge from a design process that begins with an idea not only of what a machine has to be and to do, but also of what the natural exemplar actually is and does. Nevertheless constructing a model of a natural exemplar requires some reduction in its complexity. This reductive process includes: (a) the selection or the construction of an observation level; (b) the simplification of the exemplar structure according to the selected observation level; (c) its isolation from the context in which it exists; and (d) the selection or the attribution of some performance function that designers judge essential in its behavior.

The adoption of materials that differ from those used by nature—and their interplay in a machine—makes the naturoid an alternative realization (Rosen 1993) when compared to the natural exemplar. All this, in turn, implies that the appearance and behavior of a naturoid will unavoidably overlap with only a limited set of properties from the natural exemplar, and thus importantly, give them a transfigured character in many respects and to various degrees (power, sensitivity, flexibility, side-effects, and so forth).

As a consequence, even the ethical models implicit in all naturoids will tend to work according to styles that are rather unusual in human behavior. This explains why, for example, automatic or artificial devices often appear too rigid in applying their rules. The same may be said for so-called enhanced reality devices—for example, deliberate transfigurations of some natural exemplar through its artificialization—because it is not possible to resort to any known or sufficiently established artificial morality model.

What must be emphasized is that naturoids are not simply devices humans use; rather, humans expect them to be self-adaptive and transparent replacements of natural objects. Therefore their way of being and acting is intrinsically presumed to be compatible with human ethics. Nevertheless naturoids are setting up a third reality, part natural and part artificial, whose ethical significance remains to be determined.


SEE ALSO Artificial Intelligence;Artificial Morality;Plastics;Posthumanism.


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de Solla Price, Derek. (1964). "Automata and the Origin of Mechanism." Technology and Culture 5(1): 24–42.

Latour, Bruno. (1992). "Where Are the Missing Masses: The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts." In Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, ed. Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Margolin, Victor. (2002). "Human And Machine: Issues Of Collaborative Action." In Yearbook of the Artificial, Nature, Culture and Technology, ed. Massimo Negrotti. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.

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