Thoughts & life experiences of a Chicago area graphic artist

14 November 2013

Robot Tho'ts

Sitting in the front of our family car when I was 5 years old (no car seats in those days), I looked with a sideways glance at the woman driving the vehicle. She might actually be a robot who has taken my mother's place. We were making the regular weekly trip to my grandmother's house where I would stay for the weekend. Maybe I thought this woman who looked like my mother might be a robot because, seemingly pre-occupied with thought, she was not talking to me. With uncanny cool efficiency she operated our transport. Her lovely emotionless face enhanced by strategically applied make-up framed beneath a stylish 60s coiffure would not fool me. My suspicions, however, would evaporate as soon as we arrived at Grandma's. Upon exiting the car, I would be pleasantly assaulted with the wiggly, jumping, licking, furry, happy creature --Skipper. This black and tan terrier dog did tricks and, in fact, did the trick in making my weekend stays more palatable.

Many years later, after growing out of my childhood thoughts of robotic body snatchers, I still am captivated by robots. I think that one day humans will need to reckon with artificial intelligence in terms of ethics and moral rights. Not anytime soon. Most serious scientists that I've read regarding the subject compare our current state-of-the-art level of artificial intelligent creations as having the minds equivalent in sentience to those of cockroaches. But one day that level might progress to be of a higher order. At what point will we decide to grant such beings worthy of protection within the category of humane treatment? Will it be when our synthetically generated beings are as intelligent as, say, cats? We won't need to wait until they are as smart as us. In fact, that might prove to be too late. If we're not ahead of the curve on that issue, we might have a lot of angry sentient robots on our hands before we know what's happening.

Another aspect of robotics that I often ponder is a question posed by scientist Stephen Hawking. My paraphrase of that question is: 

If we were to come in contact with an alien robot, how would we know if it was a robot?

To me that raises many deliciously complicated scenarios. Without going into all them here, I will focus on this one: We come in contact with what we think is an organic being from another planet. It is so advanced that we consider it to be truly representative of its culture of origin. Perhaps we even have a "lifeless" specimen of the being to study in the way of an autopsy. As we catalogue its anatomical traits and features, we think we are studying a true alien life form. Then a another ship comes along and we are confronted with that being's creators. And they want their property returned. Then, aghast, we realize that all the time we were examining robotic designs of a culture that is so far advanced from ours that they seem like natural biology. 

I look with a sideways glance at my reflection in a mirror. "Maybe….."

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