The Humanity of AI

Recently I read the book The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel Wilson, which follows a girl named June, a post-grad specialist of ancient machinery, and Peter, the automaton who sweeps her up in his quest to stop another automaton who is bent on consuming all the anima, the spirit that keeps the automatons alive.

Though the book was mediocre, it had some very interesting thematic content, pondering over how we discover our purposes in life and what our life is worth if we don’t know how to pursue that purpose. However, there was a much subtler theme which I found more interesting: are robots who think and act exactly like humans, just as good as humans–and if so, are they better?

If automatons, robots, artificial intelligence, whatever name we give them, gain the same footing as humans in terms of perception, cognition, and whatever else that would make them more “human,”  would that make our two species interchangeable? If they can’t feel physical pain, does that make them better than us? What about emotional responses–if they can feel love and loss, does that make them our equals? If they can’t, are they our inferiors or superiors? Even some humans are incapable of feeling physical pain or experiencing emotions, so are these categories absolutely necessary when comparing humans and artificial intelligence? How do we place a value on things that make us human?

How do we decide what makes us human? When we can artificially craft those characteristics, does that make crafted being a human? If we can make working robotic ears, limbs, brains, where is the distinction between those and fully organic bodies? Can a being be 50% human, 50% robot? 25-75%? 1-99%? Is the 1-99% being still deserving of the dignity and respect we should give to all humans? Or is it a robot about which we need not feel remorse when we throw it out because its iOS is outdated? 

With our rapidly improving technology, we are racing closer toward perfecting AI each day. As our robots become more like us and we them, I wish I could say I had these answers. I wish I could say The Clockwork Dynasty helped me come up with a better solution. All I can do now is ask you these questions, spark discussion, and hope that we become more conscious of our humanity and how we value it as it comes time to be challenged.

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Monica Sloan

Monica is a junior majoring in German. She plans to travel a lot, working in libraries around the world. She likes rock music, speculative fiction, and video games.

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