Imagine this: the probability date is 10,000 to 1 (and rising). We’ve just traveled to the future, you see, so we can’t calculate time easily by date and year but by how likely it is that that date will occur in the same manner we experience as visitors. The longer we spend there, the higher the chance that what we discover will lead as to impact something in the past that will alter the course of events, see? No?
Ah well, it’s just my pseudo-science anyway. Leaving that aside, imagine that we are some time in the future and humanity has finally discovered a way to design a highly efficient mechanical body and brain system into which human consciousness can be transferred with no (or minimal) loss. This new existence enables us to travel through space, prolongs our lifespans indefinitely, and minimizes our dependence on the ecology of any given planet. In essence, this means that if we destroy all life on Earth and strip-mine the planet of whatever minimal resources we need to exist in these robotic forms, we could pick up and fly off to another planet using, say, the natural abundance of hydrogen in space to fuel our leisurely flight between the stars.
Surprise, surprise, I know, but John and I got into an argument over this scenario the other night. John, as usual, took the position that these capacities in humanity would be awesome. I, also as usual, told him I thought this plan sounded criminally insane. My reasoning is this: our moral choices are strongly influenced by our relationship to the world around us. We make the decisions to be kind or cruel depending on our perception of others as deserving of our kindness or our cruelty, which is strongly tied to our ability to recognize that other people are capable of similar emotional states to our own AND that their emotional states are important to our well-being as a whole. Without our biological dependence on one another, our ability to see the feelings of other as important would disappear.
John doesn’t disagree with this logic, per se, but he doesn’t see the inevitable shift in morality as we take up the mantle of machinery to be problematic. His argument: morality is something we develop to help us survive. Right now, it is ethically sound to pursue sustainability because the health of the Earth is absolutely essential to our own survival. If as robots, however, life held no particular value to use (or even posed some sort of threat), valuing life and balance in an ecological system would become ethically a moot point, so why would it matter if humanity-as-robots decimated life on any planet we found it on in the search for the resources we need?
When I calmed down enough to stop calling him a proto-Nazi for this outrage, we ended up working the conversation around to a typical difference we’ve noticed in our thinking (and which research in psychology seems to support as a common gender difference). John cannot multi-task. Period. He is excellent, however, at establishing a logical system for accomplishing a single task and carrying it through to the end with marvelous precision. I, on the other hand, can do a dozen things at the same time with little difficulty, but if you ask me to sit in one place and do one thing in a systematic way, I’ll end up in the looney bin. I just can’t focus like that. How this translates out to robots is that John sees the potential efficiency of robots as a way of cleaning up the process of living. I do not have a problem with the mess. In fact, I rather prefer it.
…But I am not here to give you a play-by-play of our two-hour discussion that spanned a wide range of questions such as: “How does the modality of our existence impact the meaning of life?” and “What does the capacity to transfer a consciousness say about the possibility of a soul?” I am here to present you with the first issue in robotics which John and I have fully agreed on. Robots can dance.
Don’t believe me? Watch the video we made with little wind-up toys from the Science Museum : )
Happy National Robotics Week, everyone!