Tag Archives: Artificial Intelligence

Screenshot of Siri's response to "Are you a robot?"

When Robots Lie

Last week, a particularly weird piece of artificial intelligence news made a splash in the internet ocean. TIME magazine’s Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer got a phone call from a telemarketer named Samantha West, who was selling health insurance. She was friendly and cheerful, but something about her bugged Scherer.

“Are you a robot?” he asked her.

With a little laugh, she insisted that she was a real person. Still, something was off. Scherer pressed her on several points that would have been simple to an ordinary human being, but Samantha — or Samantha-bot — was unable to answer. Later, other TIME reporters called her back. Here are the conversations they had:

Now, as it turns out, Samantha West is not precisely a robot. The company “employing” her revealed a couple days ago to TIME that Samantha West is simply a soundboard of pre-recorded statements and questions, which is operated by a live human. The technology does not yet exist to build a stand-alone bot capable of what Samantha West does over the phone. Though automated, she is not autonomous, and therein lies a small difference.

But Samantha West grabbed my curiosity nonetheless. After hearing her story, my mother and I played around with Apple’s virtual assistant Siri on the iPad, who is most definitely a robot. However, Siri refused to admit this when we asked, making evasive statements like, “I’m an assistant. Isn’t that all that matters?” and “I don’t really like these arbitrary categories.”

I set out to discover if this was just a fluke, or if there are other chatbots around that also do not acknowledge they are robots. Continue reading When Robots Lie

Spiral galaxy NGC 6384, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

The Doors of Perception

I love this.

A couple weeks ago, Financial Times Magazine published a feature by Clive Cookson on Lord Martin Rees: Britain’s Astronomer Royal and an absolutely fascinating man. One quote of Rees toward the end caught my attention:

“There is no reason to think that our [human] comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality … There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, which we are not aware of,” Lord Rees says. This is not exactly a widely declared opinion among scientists, who tend to celebrate how successful they have been at understanding the universe, rather than ruminate on how limited the scope of their study is. But Rees holds this opinion unabashedly, as he describes in a 2012 op-ed in The Telegraph.

And why not? There is no question that science has been amazingly, ridiculously successful at developing an empirical account of our physical reality, but it is still only our physical reality that it describes. Even our most advanced scientific instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, are based on a series of theoretical and physical steps out from our basic biological identity. All of science is founded on our experience as primates possessing five(ish) physical senses, inhabiting organic bodies on a wet, rocky planet in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time. That experience forms what I would call a “bubble” of human scientific capacity.

We’ve been able to do a lot within that bubble, but we would be utter fools to think that we’ll be able to comprehend everything from that basis. There could be principles in our universe—as basic as gravity or matter-energy equivalence—that we have no clue exist, because our brains and perception are incapable of registering them. There could be other dimensions of reality, perhaps infinite in number, existing within and around our own, each inhabited by its own life-forms and intelligences. Our own universe could be nested within other universes, and others within ours, infinitely deep and vast. Continue reading The Doors of Perception

If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?

In late May, as you might have heard, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests made headlines by banning captive dolphin shows with a statement that dolphins “should be seen as non-human persons”. Although to some people the news was blown out of proportion, it was and is a big deal for dolphins and their human advocates.

However, looking at it merely as a victory for animal welfare misses the deeper significance of the event. Ultimately, this is about personhood: an entity’s status, legally and socially, as an independent and responsible person. Personhood is not something most of us think about much, if at all, but it forms a massive part of the way we subconsciously view the world. If you consider an entity to be a person rather than a thing, you will act very differently toward it. When I started thinking carefully about India’s dolphin decision, I realized that it is a small part of a titanic shift in our definition of personhood, a shift that could lead to some incredibly strange futures.

In Europe, a few hundred years ago, the full benefits of personhood were restricted to adult, white, Christian, property-owning, male humans. Two hundred years ago, slaves were treated as “things” that could be bought and sold with legal and moral impunity in many civilized countries. Whether women were legal “persons” was questionable even to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894. But during the last couple centuries, humanity has rapidly started to expand its societal and legal notions of personhood. Now, all human beings have personhood, as well as corporations in many nations, and animals are starting to gain that status. India’s dolphin declaration was only a matter of time. New Zealand and the Balearic Islands of Spain have both granted legal rights to great apes, while Germany and Switzerland have each amended their constitutions to recognize animal rights.

With animal personhood, the end result is simply better treatment of other living creatures, and recognition of their own intrinsic abilities and worth. It doesn’t mean turning them into humans; animals have their own cultures and societies and, as far as we can tell, don’t particularly care about the human versions.

The closer one gets to a human being, however, the more the lines blur.

Imagine that, many years from now, geneticists are able to successfully clone a Neanderthal from reassembled DNA. There are quite a few technical hurdles to this, but if it happens, and the Neanderthal baby is born and grows successfully to adulthood in the midst of human beings, he or she will certainly be considered a person, not merely an unusual animal. How far would their personhood go before becoming humanity? We don’t really know what a reconstituted Neanderthal would be like, so we are only able to speculate the extent to which one would participate in human society. Continue reading If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?