What can serial killers tell us about artificial intelligence?

I first wondered this while watching the second series of The Fall, a challenging and unapolegetically feminist take on the now-standard serial killer drama. In it, a handsome and fit man by the name of Paul Spector routinely stalks and murders women — in between making appointments as a certified bereavement counselor, going on date nights with his wife, and looking after his two children, ages eight and six. His foe is Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, an empowered take on Alfred Hitchcock’s blonde archetype from the London Metropolitan police called to Belfast first to participate in a departmental review, and then to oversee the investigation into Spector’s killings. It’s Gibson who links Spector’s murders together, spotting similarities in both victim profile and killing methodology. From then on, the drama unfolds as a story of two very brilliant people slowly discovering more about each other from a great distance. With every murder, Spector reveals more of himself. And at every crime scene, we learn what makes Gibson the ideal investigator to see straight through Spector’s self-righteous, pseudo-intellectual bullshit to the grimy engine of misogyny that drives him deeper down his inevitable spiral.

In other words, it’s a Chinese Room story.

In philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room argument, intended to refute arguments for strong AI, Searle argues that an appropriate contextual response to stimuli is not evidence of genuine consciousness. This acceptance of consciousness as biologically naturalistic has since been called into question by neuroscientists. We are often unconscious of behaviours, leading biologists to wonder what the point of consciousness is, or even if it’s literally just a side-effect of developing vision.

Now imagine that instead of consciousness, we were debating the existence of empathy.

After all, what’s the point? We already know that psychopaths, who have an atypical lack of empathy, can be extremely successful. They experience pleasure at the suffering of others in ways that are measurable with fMRIs. And it’s not simply a nature/nurture problem: psychopaths have unusual brain structures, and they respond more strongly to rewards than punishment. And no, mirror neurons didn’t build civilization. The problem of empathy is just as thorny and complex as the problem of consciousness. Which begs the question: is empathy a conscious process? How do you know? If you have to think about it, is it real empathy? Or are you just trying to be nice?

Which brings us to the question of serial killers, and killer robots.

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit is very clear about the relationship between psychopathy and serial killing:

Serial killers differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behavior at the crime scene. However, attendees did identify certain traits common to some serial murderers, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior. These traits and behaviors are consistent with the psychopathic personality disorder. Attendees felt it was very important for law enforcement and other professionals in the criminal justice system to understand psychopathy and its relationship to serial murder.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder manifested in people who use a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs.

More anecdotally, people who have interacted with serial killers often talk about being charmed and feeling comfortable with the murderer in their midst. Ann Rule wrote a book on the subject of her friendship with Ted Bundy. Jay Roberts was almost seduced by Randy Steven Kraft, despite never having had any interest in sleeping with men. Robert Lee Yates was a decorated military man, and a father of five with a marriage that lasted over twenty years. Dennis Lynn Rader, who inspired the character of Paul Spector, was a church council president and Cub Scout troop leader, and was married to his wife for thirty-four years.

Serial killers. They’re just like us. Which is exactly what we say want from strong AI. It’s why we continue making robots that look like us, why we keep telling stories like Her and Ex Machina and yes, vN, why we have cute conversations with Siri and Cortana. Despite warnings from the likes of Hawking, Musk, Gates and others that “there are some things man was not meant to know,” (way to prove Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley right, guys), we suffer a species-wide narcissistic delusion that if we simply create in our own image, we will become God.

But in the meantime, what better model for human-seeming performance do we have? Unlike typical humans, psychopaths actually have a process by which they decide how and when to perform empathy. Like con artists (which they also are), they read signals like body language and tone of voice to determine the perfect response. That’s affect detection. That’s theory of mind. It’s a simulation of another’s consciousness. It’s empathy. At least, it’s the performance of empathy. And that’s often good enough.

After all, if a serial murderer can be a bereavement counselor (or a Cub Scout leader, or a UN peacekeeper, or a devoted husband and father), what’s to stop an artificial intelligence from playing a human being? And what’s the point of replicating human intelligence, if we don’t focus on humane intelligence first? It’s not as if human intelligence is so reliably humane, so predictably empathetic.

Or as Stella says: “He’s not a monster. He’s just a man.”


1 thought on “What can serial killers tell us about artificial intelligence?”

  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

    Now I am reminded of Peter Watts’ BLINDSIGHT, and how a psychopath of a Vampire leads an expedition to meet aliens who ARE a chinese room intelligence.

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