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TROY, N.Y.—The hallowed halls of academia are not the place you would expect to find someone obsessed with evil (although some students might disagree). But it is indeed evil—or rather trying to get to the roots of evil—that fascinates Selmer Bringsjord, a logician, philosopher and chairman of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Department of Cognitive Science here. He's so intrigued, in fact, that he has developed a sort of checklist for determining whether someone is demonic, and is working with a team of graduate students to create a computerized representation of a purely sinister person.
"I've been working on what is evil and how to formally define it," says Bringsjord, who is also director of the Rensselaer AI & Reasoning Lab (RAIR). "It's creepy, I know it is."
To be truly evil, someone must have sought to do harm by planning to commit some morally wrong action with no prompting from others (whether this person successfully executes his or her plan is beside the point). The evil person must have tried to carry out this plan with the hope of "causing considerable harm to others," Bringsjord says. Finally, "and most importantly," he adds, if this evil person were willing to analyze his or her reasons for wanting to commit this morally wrong action, these reasons would either prove to be incoherent, or they would reveal that the evil person knew he or she was doing something wrong and regarded the harm caused as a good thing.
Bringsjord's research builds on earlier definitions put forth by San Diego State University philosophy professor J. Angelo Corlett as well as the late sociopolitical philosophers and psychologists, Joel Feinberg and Erich Fromm, but most significantly by psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck in his 1983 book, People of the Lie, The Hope for Healing Human Evil. After reading Peck's tome about clinically evil people, "I thought it would be interesting to come up with formal structures that define evil," Bringsjord says, "and, ultimately, to create a purely evil character the way a creative writer would."
He and his research team began developing their computer representation of evil by posing a series of questions beginning with the basics—name, age, sex, etcetera—and progressing to inquiries about this fictional person's beliefs and motivations.
This exercise resulted in "E," a computer character first created in 2005 to meet the criteria of Bringsjord's working definition of evil. Whereas the original E was simply a program designed to respond to questions in a manner consistent with Bringsjord's definition, the researchers have since given E a physical identity: It's a relatively young, white man with short black hair and dark stubble on his face. Bringsjord calls E's appearance "a meaner version" of the character Mr. Perry in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society. "He is a great example of evil," Bringsjord says, adding, however, that he is not entirely satisfied with this personification and may make changes.
The researchers have placed E in his own virtual world and written a program depicting a scripted interview between one of the researcher's avatars and E. In this example, E is programmed to respond to questions based on a case study in Peck's book that involves a boy whose parents gave him a gun that his older brother had used to commit suicide.