“What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.” – Alice Walker Walker’s words ring profoundly true for me, at the moment. In my sci-fi course (which is actually all about science fiction becoming real-world, bleeding-edge science; personhood; and the technological Singularity; but sci-fi is better shorthand) we’ve just covered a number of approaches to concepts such as mind uploading and immortality.
Around the world, a handful of projects are in the process, specifically, of attempting to duplicate, simulate, or in some way technologically reproduce the human brain. And we, as a species, do not appear to be even remotely prepared for the implications that success from those projects could bring.
Humankind is frequently referred to as a tool-using/-making species. What is becoming clear is that we are also a species with a real talent and drive for greater integration with our tools and with one another. Humankind is an increasingly networked species. And while this is a teleological essay, I am not prepared to make an argument that what we are witnessing is necessarily either a good or bad thing.
I teach a course in science fiction and bleeding-edge science fact; it started as a course in science fiction, but then I noticed how much sci-fi was becoming real, if sometimes weird, science. One story I started out teaching is the Lester del Rey classic Helen O’Loy. Published in 1938, del Rey’s narrator, Phil, and his housemate, Dave, tinker with what’s described as a standard housework android, modifying and upgrading zir abilities until ze becomes a she — a self-aware artificial life form — at least, as far as we can tell, she does.
I’ve been wondering quite a bit lately about the future of sports competitions. Specifically, as humankind merges ever more intimately with technology, I wonder whether such competitions as the Olympics can go on in their current forms.
In my last in this series on personhood, I mentioned that in attempting to consider how to value other beings, for my own purposes, I settled long ago on a simple, defining characteristic: For my interactions with other beings, I ask whether they can experience pain. If they can experience pain, I have decided to do my best not to inflict pain upon them.
In my last column, I mentioned that the Turing Test is an important part of determining personhood. The Turing Test determines not necessarily the consciousness of a technological agent, but whether that agent does a good enough simulation of a human being’s consciousness when communicating with a human being to fool that human being into believing that ze is communicating with another human being.
Ethically speaking, I’m waiting for B1-66ER or the hot humanlike cylons of Battlestar Galactica to show up and make a claim for personhood. Or possibly for someone’s RealDoll (NSFW), Roxxy True Companion (also NSFW), or Anydroid (NSFW — yes, again) to become imbued with enough AI to say “Not tonight, dear, I have a headache” (or to be able to say “No” and mean it.)
In my first installment, I began with the question - Who, or what, is a person? - using the Hierarchy of Exclusion from Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game novels as a starting point. My purpose in this second section is to expand our circle of inclusion.
Who, or what, is a person? It sounds like a simple question. For most of humankind, a person is a human being; in a Venn diagram, the circles that include the terms Person and Homo Sapiens Sapiens would be identical and would cover precisely the same area. The main problem with this approach is that it places all beings in one of two groups: Persons or property.