Bank Robot Defends Depositors

An Irish bank’s computer system won’t charge large clients negative interest on their cash deposits.

Well, it can’t because of its programming, but isn’t an internal code the source of every moral decision?

“Negative interest” is the Orwellian label for the practice of charging people for saving money, and it has become popular as a way to boost EU economies (encouraging people to spend by discouraging them from saving is itself twisted Orwellian policy). 

It seems that when Ulster Bank’s system was first programmed — back in the dark ages of the late 20th century — it was inconceivable that a bank would make depositors lose money when they tried to save it. Its creators imbued it with an inability to do it, whether purposefully or not.

Think of it like a Y2K glitch of moral imagination, not just a programming shortcut.

Granted, the issue doesn’t rise to the level of weighing the implications of some nuanced choice, and I don’t think the bank’s system delivered any judgment when asked to remove cash from clients’ accounts. 

But it’s an intriguing opportunity to ponder how we recognize and value intelligence and morality: just replace the computer display screen with a human employee who refuses to do something, no matter what the consequences, because she or he just knows its wrong.

We’d say that conclusion was the outcome of intelligence — perhaps inspired or ill-informed, depending on our biases about it — and we wouldn’t spend much time contemplating how or why it was reached. We’d label it an obvious effect of individual choice.

So how is the Ulster Bank computer’s action any different?

Skip its lack of body parts and its penchant for speaking only when spoken to, and doing so via (I assume) text on a screen. It has spoken in deference to the only way it knows to act.

Didn’t this robot just come to the defense of depositors?