Euthanasia and the ethics of artificial intelligence

The Canadian government’s decision to extend its already liberal regime of assisted suicide to include ages 13 to 17 will not be taken lightly by the religiously minded.

The new legislation, which will come into force from March 2024, will allow medical services to carry out acts of euthanasia not only in cases of terminal and painful illnesses, but also in a whole range of physical and psychiatric disorders for which the patient has neither the ability nor the volition to resist. Applications for such termination must be made with the signature of at least two medical professionals who are not related to family members or dependent entities.

Last year, 10,064 Canadians died by medically assisted death; this is 3.3% of the total and comparable to 4.5% in the Netherlands and 2.4% in Belgium, where similar legislation has existed since 2002. Only a small minority (0.4% in Quebec) gave rise to subsequent questioning for undue influence or other irregularities. However, with the further expansion of the rules governing the circumstances of euthanasia requests, these percentages are expected to increase substantially.

In October 2023, Portugal joins Spain and the Benelux countries in a narrower legality, but with some apprehension regarding the limitations to be established regarding (1) voluntary euthanasia whereby people make a conscious and positive decision concerning their assisted death, but even more so in the (2) non-voluntary situations in which other people must make the decision due to incapacity, such as the dying person being in a coma.

It is perhaps significant that only 33,000 “living wills” remain on record under legislation introduced a decade ago whereby people may make a written declaration that they do not wish to be resuscitated (or artificially fed) in an effort by third parties to delay the natural process of death.

The fascinating but elusive phenomenon of consciousness continues to be researched by neuroscientists in parallel with the morality of conscience by psychologists. In recent years, an international cooperative led by Professors Liad Mudrik of Israel and Giulio Tononi of the US has used a primitive form of AI to explore and collate the levels at which decisions may be made.

Perhaps not surprisingly, initial findings conclude that these exist in a variety of vacillating forms and include the ability for someone to be able to evaluate possibilities while comatose. The exact location in the brain of the information-processing mechanism and how this may be influenced externally remains undetermined.

What is certain about euthanasia is that decision-making is subject to many fluctuating influences on patients, doctors and social workers and to variations in personal circumstances or the presence/influence of a moral climate.

It is this uncertainty that forces doubt regarding the procedures currently undertaken or contemplated. As we age, the nuances of beliefs and what may have seemed like logically positive realism intended for the general benefit of society can become a source of anxiety. Nor is it comforting to know that the state of doctors’ mental well-being is at an all-time low due to the infliction of stress.

Last year, it was estimated that in the USA alone, around 400 surgeons chose to deliberately end their lives. True expression of intent has become precarious.

The current frantic pace of development of Artificial Intelligence is overwhelming. Its many applications and the need for regulation will be the main theme of the upcoming COP 28 conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. There are fears that, as with the introduction of virtual “cryptocurrency”, retrospective rules will never be able to contain what has become an epidemic of moral uncertainty.

To what extent can we prevent a potentially beneficial revolution in governance from falling into the hands of autocratic states and dishonest companies? We are on the threshold of an entirely new concept of destiny for managing a global society through which control will be exercised by robotic machines.

These will work according to an almost infinite database from which logical, not emotional, decisions regarding our lives and deaths will be made. Such will be the application of euthanasia and its sinister compatriot eugenics.

At the age of 90, I find that life’s present dilemmas are much more dangerous than they were when I was 19. I do so hope that our much-maligned younger generations will be able to find the strength of purpose to correct the sins of their fathers and restore brighter times for all who may inhabit planet Earth.

By Roberto Cavaleiro

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Roberto Cavaleiro first came to Portugal in 1982, acting as advisor to international investors. Current interests include animal welfare and writing opinion articles, especially with reference to environmental issues.