Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Star Trek and Artificial Intelligence

Recently I have been watching a lot of Star Trek. One interesting thing is the way the makers of the show have approached artificial intelligence. One of the greatest characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation was the android Data.

Data doesn’t really understand humans that well he has difficulty with humour and detecting sarcasm. He does not have any emotions, nonetheless he is a fully accepted member of the crew. In a number of episodes the question is raised: is Data just an appliance to be exploited, dismantled or destroyed at a whim? The answer that Star Trek gives is that he is a person with the same rights that any intelligent being would have.

In the later series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine they introduce Vic Fontaine a holographic jazz and lounge singer modelled on Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Vic needed to “know the score” to be able to play this role so he actually knew that he was a hologram. He was smart, wise and funny. He was an important part in the lives of the crew of Deep Space Nine. Vic wasn’t just a hologram his entire world was a simulation for people’s entertainment. He was even able to turn himself off or on at will.

Vic ended up being fully valued and accepted person in his own right. It turns out that it doesn’t matter if you’re reality is a holo program it is still your reality and as valid as any other reality.

In Star Trek Voyager all their medical personnel get killed in the first episode. Luckily that ship was equipped with an emergency holographic doctor. He doesn’t believe that he is a person that deserves rights - he does not even use a name. Even though he is rude and a bit cantankerous he gradually becomes a member of the crew.

There is one member of the crew, Kes, who tries to convince the holographic doctor that he is a person that deserves respect. Kes even raises with the captain that some people are rude to the doctor - they don’t care about him, they think of him as an elaborate appliance. The captain eventually orders the crew to give the doctor as much respect as they would a person.

Star Trek has repeatedly raised the issue of the rights of artificial intelligences. I strongly believe that in the next couple of decades we will be facing the very same issues that these fictitious crews have faced. I also think that Star Trek’s response to the artificial intelligence issue is the correct one. Who are we to judge whether or not a person is really a person. If something acts like a person and has almost every other aspect of an intelligent being - they deserve the rights of an intelligent being.

I think it will be inevitable that we will accept artificial intelligences into our lives. We can anthropomorphise anything. Just look at the way that we treat our pets. Our two dogs are members of the family, it just wouldn’t be the same without them. You look at the way kids react to R2-D2 or C-3PO. Some people name their cars and other machines. We once had a rotary hoe named Jaws and a hedge clipper called Excalibur.

Intelligent machines will not be our enemy. I think intelligent machines will be our friends. They will help humanity create a better and fairer world. I can’t wait.

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