Thursday, December 23, 2010

What Humans Are Saying: Bots, droids and sentience

What Humans Are Saying: Bots, droids and sentience: "Name: Gary Starta Name of Book: Gods of the Machines Guest Post for The Story Behind the Book: My inspiration to write the novel, Gods o..."

Bots, droids and sentience

Name: Gary Starta

Name of Book: Gods of the Machines

Guest Post for The Story Behind the Book:

My inspiration to write the novel, Gods of the Machines, basically comes down to one word of inspiration: sentient. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sentient as ‘feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception or thought.” The ability to feel defines our consciousness as humans. It is what distinguishes us from other devices capable of thought or calculation i.e. computers. And although that line of separation, the inability of your laptop to feel emotion, is pretty thick at the moment, there may come a time when that line will either be blurred or crossed. Maybe you are skeptical that robots or perhaps, androids – beings that resemble humans – will ever exist in the way we see them in movies such as I Robot. But there are signs that technology is advancing and that robotics is becoming more and integrated into our everyday life.

The latest cutting edge cell phone operating system is called Android or Droid for short. Although a phone is a long way from a walking, talking android, it seems to show the very idea of such technology is seeping into the consumer consciousness. In Japan, actual android/robots have been created! They have skin made of silicon, and sensors allow them to react. They appear to blink and even breathe! But what they don’t possess is sentience. And because they don’t, I believe these creations will be ripe for exploitation. Robots are already in use in battlefields. Androids such as the life-like creations in Japan may be used for servitude as well, perhaps as nursing aides.

So the idea of robots is really not that extreme or fantastical. For the most part, they are here. Will it be all right to use them for servitude? Most every science fiction story of the last half century portrays them in that manner. Think of Bicentennial Man. But in that movie, there is a difference because that robot evolves, so much, that it actually becomes human. Still, the robot is portrayed as a servant, although its owner treats it with respect.

Will humanity treat robots with respect once they grow in number? People who perceive them as mere machines such as a computer will probably dismiss the idea of expending emotion on objects. But others may feel compelled to interact with androids as if they were human, even if they don’t possess self awareness or are unable to feel genuine emotion.

Kismet is a prime example of such a situation. A robot, Kismet was manufactured by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990’s. It possesses the ability to simulate human emotion. It can waggle its ears, move its eyes, lift its eyebrows and move its jaw. Its ability to mimic human facial expressions has given it the ability to engage humans in a limited conversational manner. Because its’ physical mannerisms show it to perceive or understand human emotion – even though it does not – humans nonetheless will gravitate to a being like Kismet which resembles themselves. Just as they do to a newborn child or baby animal. Humans can’t really talk to human or animal babies, but they can share facial expressions with one another. People may incorrectly posit an animal understands them because of the creature’s facial expression. They also might think their human baby understands them simply because of a facial expression. So in cases such as these, understanding between the human and the baby becomes a moot point because the human in enraptured by the toddler or kitten based on visual perception.

Author Anne Foerst says she has had emotional reactions in her interactions with Kismet. She deems them spiritual. She believes she had bonded with Kismet. Other people might find this ludicrous. But those who have interacted with Kismet and still feel they haven’t bonded might feel the same way when they react with a human being they feel is inferior to them. There will be prejudice against robots and androids. That is a certainty.

In my novel, Gods of the Machines, a detective finds himself investigating a murder where the victim was brutally killed. He deems only an android capable of such strength to kill her. Yet there is no physical evidence to support his theory. He has reacted based on his prejudice towards artificial beings. The suspect in question – James Starkman – possesses feelings because of his special programming. He is sentient. However, humans have been slow to bestow him with the same rights as biological citizens. And because Starkman exists as a thing or not a citizen, the detective finds he is unable to bring charges against it. This idea intrigued me to write the novel. The possibility that one day, when sentient androids do indeed exist, will they be embraced as citizens or regulated to servitude? Or will they become classified in some gray area which will ultimately benefit their biological makers? It makes me wonder if our constitution will need an amendment. Will the definition of people need to be broadened? And ultimately, who will become the gods of these machines?