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IEET > Rights > Neuroethics > FreeThought > Personhood > Vision > Contributors > Jønathan Lyons

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Was Helen O’Loy a person, or merely a thing?


Jønathan Lyons
Jønathan Lyons
Ethical Technology

Posted: Nov 21, 2012

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.

The newly self-aware Helen takes a liking to Dave, and after some resistance on his part, they fall in love, become intimate, marry, and have a life together as husband and wife. So it seems useful to pose the question: Was Helen O'Loy a person? It's not the love or the experiencing of emotion that matters, for this question; what is important is that by all accounts, she experienced intelligence and self-awareness – that she became a sentient being. For the sake of clarity, I want to spell out that when using the word person, I am not using the term as a synonym for human being. Personis a philosophical concept, while human is a scientific, even taxonomical classification:

 "A person is a being, such as a human, that has certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood, which in turn is defined differently by different authors in different disciplines, and less formally by different cultures in different times and places. … "Personhood is the status of being a person. Defining personhood is a controversial topic in philosophy and law, and is closely tied to legal and political concepts of citizenship, equality, and liberty. According to law, only a natural person or legal personality has rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and legal liability. Personhood continues to be a topic of international debate, and has been questioned during the abolition of slavery and the fight for women’s rights, in debates about abortion, fetal rights and reproductive rights, and in animal rights advocacy."

Using these qualities as guidelines, it is not a stretch of the imagination to consider the personhood of the other, nonhuman beings who possess these qualities. In fact, we see advocacy for nonhuman personhood in movements such as The Great Ape Project and The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans. To me, this isn't a religious argument; the question of whether a being does or does not possess a soul – itself an unproveable concept – is irrelevant. Ensoulment is an issue that rests in the domain of mysticism. At the heart of the question of Helen's status is whether she was an actual, sentient being, or just a very, very good simulation – a simulated sentience.

In a very real way, I think that if we human beings cannot tell the difference, then the difference may not matter, at least insofar as it pertains to how we would treat that technological being. In a discussion that was conducted at cryonet.org in 2003, Mike Perry makes the following observation:

"In a recent posting I raised the possibility that a system that simulates a brain at a deep level may, to all appearances, have consciousness and feeling. For instance, a robot of the future could appear to be a human being, both physically and behaviorally, but have no protoplasm. Its brain, say, simulates a human brain at a deep level but, once again, can be distinguished in some physical way from natural wetware. Under these conditions I, once again, offer that there would be no compelling reason (as usual barring some fundamental new discovery about reality) not to regard the robot as possessing true consciousness and feeling."

To all appearances – indeed, particularly to her husband, dave – Helen was an artificially intelligent, differently sentient, technological being. In fact, over time, Phil forgot that his wife was not a human being; and Helen, with Dave's help, aided the illusion by cosmetically aging her as the years they spent together wound on. In an earlier attempt to uplift a housework android with a female body, the housemates tinkered with a less sophisticated model called Lena. But even after their modifications, they thought of Lena as a nonhuman nonperson: " 'Look here, Dave,' I argued. 'You know Lena doesn't think--not really. When those wires crossed, she could have corrected herself. … Lena has sense enough, but she has no emotions, no consciousness of self.' " (Emphasis mine.)

The inventors have upgraded the android Lena, but they do not believe that she is a conscious, sentient being. (This is curious, to me, because Lena complains about how much of her time has been spent with her in pieces, turned off, as the housemates made changes to her hardware, and she refers to herself in the first person – indicating, it seems, self-awareness, and possibly sentience.) Early on in Helen's life, when she has learned about love by watching soap operas and is positively enamored with Dave, the inventors also discuss shutting her down: " 'Look here, Dave,' I broke in on his brooding. 'Helen isn’t human, after all.

Why not cut off her power and change a few memory coils? The we can convince her that she never was in love an couldn't get that way.' 'You try it. I had that idea … she says it would be murder – and the hell of it is I can't help feeling the same about it. Maybe she isn't human, but you wouldn't guess it when she puts on that martyred look and tells you to go ahead and kill her.'" Helen has protested that shutting her down and altering the hardware that houses her mind or disassembling her would be murder; she is making a claim for her own personhood, and thereby asserting a right not to be arbitrarily destroyed. (Gender also comes into play here as the fate of Helen, a female android, is in the hands of two men.)

Given that she very much appears to be what she claims to be – a technological being who is clearly artificially intelligent, and who is by all appearances sentient – though differently so from us biological persons – on what grounds, apart from the fact that her mind exists on a nonhuman, nonbiological substrate, could we possibly deny that she is, in fact, a person? The personhood of a nonhuman, biological being who is sufficiently intelligent and sentient could only be denied by speciesist arguments and attitudes. A nonhuman, nonbiological being who demonstrates those same qualities could only have such a claim denied via an attitude of substrate chauvinism – that is, a belief in the innate supremacy of a mind arising from the substrate of a biological brain over any minds that might arise from a technological substrate – possibly coupled with a speciesist sense of innate human supremacy. The only conclusion that I can reach, then, is that if she were to emerge in the real world, Helen O'Loy would, indeed, be entitled to classification and treatment as a person.


Jønathan Lyons is an affiliate scholar for the IEET. He is also a transhumanist parent, an essayist, and an author of experimental fiction both long and short. He lives in central Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University. His fiction publications include Minnows: A Shattered Novel.
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