When Sentient Artificial Intelligence Becomes Reality

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Two things humans often do: We anthropomorphise, and we dehumanise. Which is, if you think about it, a rather curious dichotomy: when we anthropomorphise, we ascribe human characteristics to inhuman beings, and when we dehumanise, we do the opposite, denying the full and equal humanity of other members of our own species. The classic example of this is someone who invests deeply in animal welfare, but doesn't care about human rights abuses. Obviously, it's possible to feel passionate about both, and there's also the issue of compassion fatigue: There's only so much we can care about before we reach a sort of emotional event horizon and start to shut down. I know people who take a more active interest in animal than in human rights simply because they find the latter too harrowing, too difficult to combat, and too complicated, whereas the former, while still distressing, has simpler, more obvious solutions and, to some eyes, far less moral ambiguity. Bring up the maltreatment of dogs or horses in conversation, and you're unlikely to find anyone willing to offer a political defence of the culprits; bring up the mistreatment of refugees or the long-term psychological impact of racism, and you could well be told the problem doesn't exist (or at least, not meaningfully), that 'those people' should be grateful for what assistance they do receive, that their commitment to victimhood is the real source of their problems, and that they bring it on themselves.

As anyone with a sufficient exposure to science fiction narratives could tell you, we humans have a longstanding literary obsession with the idea of machine sentience, of the creation of new life at our hands, and of what that might mean for the future. -- Foz Meadows

Which is why, when I look at Theo Jansen's moving sculptures - the Strandbeests that he calls 'a new form of life' - I find it interesting that he specifically calls them animals, rather than suggesting that their evolution towards a self-sustaining existence is a sign of higher intelligence. As anyone with a sufficient exposure to science fiction narratives could tell you, we humans have a longstanding literary obsession with the idea of machine sentience, of the creation of new life at our hands, and of what that might mean for the future. In the Western canon, robot insurgence is almost always viewed as a negative, or at the very least, a cause for upheaval and catastrophe. From novels like Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey through to films like The Matrix, The Lawnmower Man and Terminator, our fears around the emergence of true, independent AI are clear: One day, Skynet will rise and then we'll be in trouble, because what else would a cold, clinical, mechanical mind want but our total destruction, or else revenge for our selfish treatment of robots? There is, however, a counterpoint: writing in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture, Professor Morris Low argues that the reason machine sentience is viewed differently in Japan is thanks to the Shinto concept of kami, which says that everything in the world -- trees, rocks, animals, people -- are all imbued with a living spirit. Thus, Japanese stories about the same topic - notably famous manga and anime like Astro Boy, Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion: Neon Genesis - tend to feature AI as a positive natural development: something to be explored without the threat of war and annihilation, and whose disembodied or metal-skinned children can coexist peacefully with humankind.

Theo Jansen's kinetic sculptures are incredible: elaborate, massive scuttling crabs of metal and plastic, steadily and cleverly adapting to life on the Dutch beaches. In the grand science fictional narrative of artificial intelligence and living metal, they seem to me to throw much more to the kami, ghost-mind theory than to its apocalyptic counterpart - but it does make me wonder. So easily, we imbue artificial animals (and real ones) with personality, motive, spirit: We anthropomorphize them, the better to find them endearing. Yet at the same time, we continue - sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes with the chillingly calculated violence of thought and law and action - with the dehumanization and othering of people whose differences to ourselves, however ostensibly radical, still place them far closer to us than fleshless artistic constructs. Which begs the question: if and when sentient AI becomes reality, will it, too, have the capacity to both anthropomorphize and dehumanize other beings in relation to itself? And if it did, would we view it as more or less human depending on which skill it used to refine its opinion of humanity?

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.