Monday, November 29, 2004

Robot Descendants

At the last WTA chapter meeting, I posed the following rhetorical question:

Which scenario is better: a) that humanity destroy itself in a thermonuclear fireball, or b) that we develop an AI that learns everything we know before supplanting us as the dominant (or only) life form on Earth?

Normally, I hate this kind of question. You know, questions like "would you rather lose an arm or a leg?" Of course, I don't want to lose either.

Still, my question about alternate futures serves to highlight an interesting point. I think it is the dream of most scientists, inventors and artists to produce work that will be appreciated long after they are dead. They don't care who is doing the appreciating. They don't produce a new cure for disease just for their family, their country or their race, they do it for humanity. But what is our individual connection to humanity? How much of an emotional connection do we really have with homo sapiens sapiens in particular? Not that much, I would argue. It's too abstract a concept.

Suppose that in 10,000 years, our descendants have brains that are twice as large as ours, have twenty times our strength and virtually unlimited lifespans. If you met such a creature today, would you call her human? More than human? And if our woman of the future says she appreciates your paintings, your novels and your contributions to science, would you be offended? And if her body were made of silicon and carbon nanotubes, would this change anything?

The bottom line is this. Any creature that we consider to be intelligent and virtuous is a good person, independent of its biology.

D'Lenn, Abe Sapien, Stitch, Arwen, Romanadvoratrelundar, Yoda, John Parker, Kalel, Data... if they were real, would we not consider each of their lives as important as any human life?

As an aside, I wonder how appreciation of science fiction correlates with tolerance for homosexuals. Surely, the sexual practices of fictional alien species must be more bizarre than homosexuality.

1 comment:

Robin Zebrowski said...

Your question about science fiction is a great one - one of my degrees is in English, and as a jaded undergraduate I took most of my English classes in science fiction whenever I could. I remember thinking at the time that if more people would just read Octavia Butler's Wild Seed series, they'd have a lot to think about, in relation to gender issues (without it being an obviously gender-issue set of books).