18 Apr 2017
This week I’d like to explore whether AI might ever be considered “minds,” or by extension, robots ever considered people. It’s something I touched on ever so briefly in one of my earliest posts.
One of the most personally influential things I’ve read with regard to this question is Issac Asimov’s short story The Bicentennial Man (which you can read online here). I highly recommend reading it: it’ll make what I say next make a lot more sense (and also what I say next is full of spoilers for the story).
Long story short The Bicentennial Man takes place in a world full of highly advanced robots who serve humanity under The Three Laws. While the technology of the world is advanced, the laws and ethics around it are not, so the plot follows robot Andrew Martin as he endeavors for equal rights and ultimately for humanity (that is, designation as a human). The story arc addresses the inherent fuzziness of the line between a machine that acts just like a person and a person. Suffice it to say, I think most readers are inclined, by the end of the story, to say that Martin had in fact crossed that line and genuinely earned his title of Bicentennial Man.
In watching how something that was “definitely a machine” become an actual person, we answer the question of whether something that wasn’t created human could become human.
In his post to Edge, Joichi Ito draws a connection between cultural context (religion specifically) and attitudes towards the exclusivity of humanity:
If these anecdotes tell us anything, it’s that animist religions may have less trouble dealing with the idea that maybe we’re not really in charge. If nature is a complex system in which all things—humans, trees, stones, rivers and homes—are all animated in some way and all have their own spirits, then maybe it’s okay that God doesn’t really look like us or think like us or think that we’re really that special. – Joichi Ito, What do you think about machines that think?
I think this line of thinking opens up some interesting considerations, like if robots are people, do they go to heaven? I asked this of a friend before she read the story. Her answer was that salvation is something that happens to the soul, and souls come from God, so a man-made machine, being soul-less, couldn’t go to heaven. After reading the story, however, it’s nearly irresistible to grant Martin all the considerations given typically to a human. This friend of mine, after reading the story, changed her mind. God saves his chosen, and he chooses those who do good deeds. Suddenly, the centrality of organic flesh to our concept of humanity crumbles, and something else more universal emerges.
All this reminds me of our discussions on the hacker mindset, A Portrait of J. Random Hacker in particular. This text talked about sci-fi’s influence on the typical hacker and how its diverse cast of humanoid (but still non-human in the strictest terms) characters can open the mind to more inclusive definitions of humanity. I think it’s tempting to assume that these characters will gradually creep into reality, perhaps giving rise to a society in which humans and robots coexist separately. I can’t make any certain comments about where the technology is going, but the whole Deus-Ex style bionics seem at least a little more likely (but that’s a whole different can of worms for another time).