The growth of technology has seen rapid advancements in the last several decades in many key areas. AI is growing in scope and capacity and is already being used in various parts of the modern world. As AI advances the concept of human-like robots becomes less the realm of fiction and more of a possible outcome of an evolving technology. These possibilities have lead to both fascination and concern. Assuming that robots with highly advanced AIs are created what does this mean for human society and what questions does it raise about how life is defined?
The Ethical Dilemmas
The concept of robots with advanced AI brings with it several ethical questions. Once robots (and the AIs contained within) become advanced enough to display independent thought are they now alive, can you murder a robot, can a robot be found guilty of murder, can they own things, have jobs, etc.? The is also the greater question of should such robots be created in the first place and if so how much control should humans have over inorganic thinking beings.
Such ethical questions are hard to answer because it focuses on what the future may be and skips the process that leads to it. As with other technologies the development of robots with human levels of intelligence and self-awareness will occur over time with several stages of development. This means that by the time such robots are created people will likely have lived alongside less developed AIs (i.e. AIs with animal-level intelligence) for several years. Laws (and ethics) will evolve as the technology becomes commonplace. Laws such as ‘attempted murder of an inorganic life form’ are not out of the question.
Does Consciousness Equal Life?
If life is defined as simple biology (and related chemical effects) than all animals, plant life, and bacteria are considered alive. Humans tend to separate ourselves from other animals in how we define humans as being alive. The key element that separates human life from other animal life is awareness. Humans have a capacity for abstract thought that no other animal displays. Where this relates to advanced robots is that once technology advances enough they may display not only decision-making abilities but also abstract thinking about their place in the universe, philosophy, and theological concerns. But does this mean ‘alive’? As humans, we place a great deal of value on the things that make us more than mere animals. A robot displaying these traits may not be organic but it shows life in how humans define it for themselves.
The wider idea of robots (or other artificially created beings) having a soul is one that is found writing, television, movies, and popular culture as a whole. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, and the character Data from Star Trek are three of many examples that can be cited. The reason this concept strikes a chord is because it speaks to broader philosophical questions.
The question of what defines a robot as alive speaks to the greater question of what defines a person. This question has been asked as long as humanity has been aware of how they differed from other animals. If humanity is defined as unique not due to biology but awareness and intelligence then a robot displaying these traits is ‘alive’ in its awareness of the world and how it relates to it. As AI and robots advance these questions will continue to be asked and answers ever changing to fit new understandings and may redefine what being alive is defined as.