Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Romancing the Bot, Part 2


Movie robots don’t have to be sexual objects to be considered sexy. Take Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). A robot is created with the face of the heroine, Maria. Although built for evil, the robot is also erotic, with a Madonna-like armor-plated look.

There were plenty of hot bots in Westworld (1973), Michael Crichton’s view of a future Disney-like adult playground. If you have the technology, sex bots aren’t just for vacations. The Stepford Wives (1975) replaced everyday spouses with robots.

In 1982, Blade Runner gave us replicants, genetically engineered organic robots. (I guess “clone” wasn’t popular when Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1968.) But the movie did give a Pleasure Unit named Pris.

Arguably, the most human of the screen’s artificial creatures was Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I submit the believability of this character owed more to the scripts and Brent Spiner’s acting than to any plausible future science.

Data’s technology is straight from Isaac Asimov’s 1950’s science-fiction, not current research in Artificial Intelligence. Data not only has Asimov’s imaginative but undefined “positronic” brain, he obeys Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

Why was Data based on old fiction rather than current state-of-the-art AI? Because in the late 80s, AI had nothing better to offer as a basis for a believable future android. Nor does it now.

Artificial Intelligence is still struggling with machine intelligence distinct from human intelligence. The latter requires a self, consciousness, and emotion among other qualities.

Intelligence is meaningless without decision-making. Yet AI fails to grasp that human decisions depend upon meaning and meaning does not exist in a vacuum, i.e., without emotion.

If we seek the equality of other, even artificial, creatures, intelligence is only a starting point. To get from there to a shared morality is a formidable task. Can fiction offer any shortcuts?

In one episode, Picard argues Data’s right to self-determination is not limited by being a machine. Surely Data has more rights than a toaster, but how—and where—do we draw the line?

Data is human enough for sex, rights, and fatherhood. As to how human he is, I’ll let Shylock answer: He may have hands and dimensions, but no organs, nor will he bleed. Grant him senses, but affections? Passions? And if we tickle him, will he laugh?

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