The Search for Meaning in Meaningful Human Control

Leaders must have a Universal Moral Philosophy first

Melanie Garson
7 min readFeb 23, 2021

The ‘This We Believe Series”

By Melanie Garson Ph.D. & Shannon Mullen O’Keefe M.A.L.D.

In an episode of the television series Black Mirror human beings risk their lives to seek out the contents of a box in a warehouse. In doing so they encounter security — a robotic dog — which ruthlessly pursues and attempts to kill them.

What was in the box that the humans risked their lives for? (*spoiler alert*)

Teddy bears.

The humans wanted to retrieve the teddy bears to give them to a dying friend.

If that security guard had been a dad, or a grandpa, or a brother, sister, mother. . . they would not have killed over that box — right? Because they would — get it.

Another way of looking at this is that a human could express meaningful human control.

The concept of meaningful human control originates with the UK NGO Article 36 which ‘called for a ban on fully autonomous armed robots,’ in March 2012. Basically, the NGO doesn’t want to see our collective future become real Black Mirror episodes with no one able to put a leash on the killer robotic dogs.

The creative minds of Black Mirror reflect one of the most critical debates as autonomous processes advance. If the machines don’t understand the value of a teddy bear what other values have they yet to learn? And how are we to teach them?

Toby Ord, a philosopher featured in a New Yorker article recently, who studies our species’ ‘existential risk,’ gives ‘empowered artificial intelligence unaligned with human values’ a ‘one-in-ten chance of ending humanity within the next hundred years.

The mirror gets darker it seems.

But, isn’t the intent of meaningful human control that we create mirrors that will reflect the best of us?

Let’s think a little more about that.

Before we try to think of the meaningful control of machines do we not have to question are we as humans meaningfully in control of human actions?

Theologians and Philosophers have been philosophizing and theologizing for a long time about how important it is that we reflect on human motivations.

Remember the Humanity Formula? Kant? Kant, reminded us of our right as human beings to be treated as an end in and of ourselves. Basically he said that just the fact that we are human matters — our humanity matters.

This is moral philosophy. And that is the point here that we want to tackle in this article. Yes, we need to make sure humans have meaningful human control of the robots.

For sure.

But we also need to make sure that humans have meaningful human control of ourselves — humans first.

For robots to be meaningfully regulated by humans, there must be core human values present first that will help us to ensure that we are acting in a moral way.

Have we forgotten there can also be killer humans?

Forget about the robots.

Not all humans might ‘get it.’

Human leaders who cede their autonomy to a different set of values, values not underscored with a meaningful respect for human dignity — a value system that sanctions violence against others — is our first problem.

Before we sanction meaningful control of robots, we must ensure that we are aligned about the values with which we expect our leaders to control meaningfully.

Machines will always be what men and women make them to be and recent times have reminded us of the questions of the broader values in which we are situated.

Brad Smith underscores this when he says. “The issues raised by AI touch on topics like the role of personal accountability, the importance of public transparency, concepts of individual privacy, and notions of fundamental fairness. How can the world converge on a singular approach to ethics for computers when it cannot agree on philosophical issues for people? This is a fundamental conundrum for the future.”

So, how do humans maintain meaningful human control of themselves first?

We need Moral Leadership grounded in Core Values like those represented in The Golden Rule, and a basic appreciation for Human Dignity.

Intelligent and meaningful human control whether its man or machine needs to be grounded in ethical decision making that is predicated on the dignity of human beings first and always.

In our search to understand the values required to underpin a model of visionary leadership that transcends the narrow outbidding of today’s politics, and that can also take us into the unknown future we continue to dive into Edward R. Murrow Papers at the Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University to seek out themes — with an eye to identifying values leaders can grab on to as they shape their future narratives.

What values must leaders grasp that will tether everyone to a moral ground as they shape their narratives for the future? A future that demands that we revisit what is at the core of meaningful human control?

A content analysis of the 574 interviews conducted by Murrow between 1951–1954 the leaders from all walks of life returned to the same core values — dignity, humanity, moral responsibility, and democracy underpinned by understanding the worth of every individual.

From the singer Margaret Eleanor Whiting, who believed that “every other human being on Earth is important… regardless of his race, creed, nationality, or station in life.” To Philip M. Klutznick, international president of B’nai B’rith, the world’s oldest and largest Jewish service organization, who pointed out the “necessity of building human communities with a sense of responsibility for preserving the dignity of the individual.” The value of individual dignity is the lynchpin of a healthy society.

It is the very basis of “human relations, government relations, and international relations” that must be “strengthened and made real,” highlighted Howard C. Peterson, former Assistant Secretary of War and who was president of The Fidelity Philadelphia Trust Company. This was echoed by Dr Ina Corinna Brown, distinguished scientist and professor of anthropology at Scarritt College in Nashville, Tennessee, who pointed out that “It is one’s duty and obligation to help create a social order in which persons are more important than things, ideas more precious than gadgets, and in which individuals are judged on the basis of personal worth.”

“It is one’s duty and obligation to help create a social order in which persons are more important than things, ideas more precious than gadgets, and in which individuals are judged on the basis of personal worth.”

Milton Katz at the time, the Associate Director of the Ford Foundation reminded of the “grim” consequence of not valuing dignity, “Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union…were powerful nations whose ruling caste rejected not only the values of freedom and justice and charity, but the belief in the dignity of man and the worth of the individual, out of which these values grew.”

And foreign correspondent William L. Shirer, was one of the first to show the dark mirror of Hitler in his Berlin diary said, “Living in a totalitarian land taught me to value highly — and rather fiercely — the very things the dictators denied: tolerance, respect for others and, above all, the freedom of the human spirit.”

“Living in a totalitarian land taught me to value highly — and rather fiercely — the very things the dictators denied: tolerance, respect for others and, above all, the freedom of the human spirit.”

Across the spectrum of leadership, valuing human dignity was the repeated theme as the basis of governing all our interactions. Whether personal spiritual interactions as Edward P. Morgan, foreign correspondent, magazine writer…said, “If I cannot believe in the man next door and recognize and respect the human dignity, which is his birthright as intimately as his skin, what valid connection can I claim with a presence in whose image I am supposed to be cast?” Or with those around us, as Edward Gregg [who was he] emphasised respecting the “peculiar dignity” of every individual.

And what is the foundation of it all? The Golden Rule — as Gregg said “I should do unto others as I would have them do unto me.”

Underpinning everything with The Golden Rule is a great place to start.

Max Tegmark reminds us in Life 3.0… “The Golden Rule appears in most religions/cultures in order to promote continuation of human society fosters collaboration and prevent unproductive strife.”

As Americans turn the page on leadership this year, Joe Biden the newly elected president cited his version of the ‘Golden Rule,’ in his inauguration speech: “We can treat each other with dignity and respect.”

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, author, technology executive and investor sums it all up well by saying, “Let us choose to let machines be machines and let humans be humans. Let us choose to simply use our machines, and more importantly love one another.”

So, what values must exist for us to establish meaningful human control?

Let us treat one another like we want to be treated.

And keep responsibility and human dignity as core values.

Once we establish this foundation for ourselves first, next we can meaningfully control the robotic security dogs and all the rest that will surely come.

This We Believe.

With thanks to Thomas Kenchington for his contributions to this project via his mindful culling and coding of themes.



Melanie Garson

I’m a creative problem solver, educator, mediator and lawyer with an interest in impact of emerging technologies on the future of conflict.