Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Humans are Dead

From harmony0stars:

What does it mean to be "human"? Is it possible for a machine to be "human"?

This question reminds me of one of my favorite books, The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee. It takes place in "the future" and is about a shy girl from a rich family who gets a pleasure-bot. And no, it doesn't provide that kind of pleasure... necessarily. Get your mind out of the gutter!

So, where were we? Oh yeah--well, you see, in this future, there are a few very expensive, humanesque robots who are programmed to specialize in certain entertainment features--dancing, playing music, etc. Silver, the 'bot Jane gets, specializes in music. The robots are not supposed to have souls or feelings, but they are programmed to respond to and learn from their human overlords owners. In the end, this turns out to be inherently contradictory, and let's just say Silver gets re-programmed.

The question of whether or not machines can be human always seems to come down to two things: do they have feelings, and do they have souls. As if humans are the only animals on earth that have feelings or souls?! As harmony0stars pointed out in her post on this same subject, humans tend to overrate themselves, even among our own species. It wasn't that long ago that Thomas Jefferson was pondering whether or not American Indians had souls (he was certain that African, re: black, people didn't). Nowadays, I think most people would agree that all humans have souls, along with animals and even plants--or at the very least that they all have an animating consciousness.

The next question then becomes, can humans create something with a soul? The answer of course is yes: we create little babies all the time. And unless babies don't have souls, I think that counts. Of course machines are another matter entirely, but I think this is the sticking point because the idea that scientists could create something as or more intelligent than we--humans--are is terrifying. Like a super-charged Hitler or Ted Bundy. But this fear has nothing to do with the actual machines; it has to do with their creators and whether or not they have any morals. A creation run amok, just like Frankenstein's monster, is a reflection of its creator (actually, Frankenstein isn't the only tale with this theme--the myth of Pygmalion goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks and deals with similar issues, except in that case the "creature" is a statue brought to life). Writers like Tanith Lee who create cautionary tales of humanoid robots and artificial intelligence aren't cautioning us against robots; they're asking if the people parenting this next step on the evolutionary ladder are responsible enough to be good parents. And I think we all know the answer is typically NO.

And in honor of this question, I think it's time for a music video:

The Humans Are Dead by Flight of the Conchords

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