Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t already, you can read my short story Because I’m Human online for free, (it’s only about 1300 words long.) I wrote the short the story to look at why people are fooled by robots, A.I, or computers in general. Why do we humanize them? I put it down to instinct and that we have the ability to think abstractly. Abstract thinking can be helpful but it isn’t always rational, just because a few lines look like a smiley face doesn’t mean it’s a real face. Just to be clear, I’m not claiming to be above all that. I wanted to create a meme about mutations using a picture of the Mona Lisa with bullet holes photoshopped onto it. I could not bring myself to put bullet holes on her body (especially her head); it just seemed too sadistic and that was just a picture.
Anyway, just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m a programmer so I know what’s going on inside of a computer. It’s just electronic signals that represent data (e.g. numbers or letters of the alphabet) and instructions (i.e. instructions that perform mathematics on two numbers, move data to this or that location, etc). And basically for every chip inside the computer, a limited number of instructions are processed at a time. Our brains are constantly doing multiple things at a time. But even that doesn’t adequately convey a computer’s artificial nature. I think it is best summed up with John Searle’s Chinese room argument.
Searle is quoted on the Mind Matters website.
“Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese. (1999)”
So, Searle is showing that a computer’s CPU is not conscious of what it is doing and doesn’t understand anything.
(I highly recommend Mind Matters to anyone interested in AI and Human intelligence).
Suffice to say, I am skeptical of claims that computers will ever be truly ‘conscious’ or ‘intelligent’ in the general sense of the word.
Don’t get me wrong, I love computers and wish that AI could make my life easier, I make use of it wherever I can, and I will not be surprised if there are some outstanding breakthrough yet to come. I just don’t buy the idea that our brain is just meat computer or that Turing Machines (i.e. modern computers) can do everything that a human mind can.
So, when I read a book by Rodney Brooks Robot, The Future of Flesh and Machines and came upon several accounts of people (even AI skeptics) reacting emotionally to robots, that had me asking the question “Why?”
BTW: Brooks’ company developed robot babies and he discusses it in Robot. I don’t agree with Brooks on a lot of things but I enjoyed reading it anyway, especially the first half which is a summary of the history of robotics and Brooks’ involvement in it.
There was also another significant moment that got me wondering why we react emotionally to robots, and that is a scene from the movie A.I. A scene where a cute robot called David (played by a then-young Haley Joel Osment) begged for its life. He did not want to be blasted by a shotgun or suffer some other nasty fate.
So as a programmer, who is convinced that robots are not conscious and that they don’t have real feelings, could I shoot something that looked like Haley Joel Osment while it begged for its life?. The answer is No, definitely not. Not because it has real emotions but because I do and I also have instinct. Even as a programmer who knows how computers work and knowing about the limitations of “Deep Learning” the nastiest thing I would do to such a machine is press the off button. Why would any programmer want to destroy such an expensive machine?
So why do people react emotionally to robots? I believe it’s because we were designed by God to have an instinct to preserve human life (and that carries over to things that look human). I know that I am generalizing there. Some people don’t react emotionally in the same way that others do (e.g. psychopaths) but overall I think we are born with these instincts. That doesn’t make us robots or make robots human.