GLaDOS is an artificially intelligent supercomputer from the game series Portal. Source: Valve Corporation

By: Daniel Tierney/Webmaster

About a year ago, I decided to leave my cell phone alarm on my desk so that I was less likely to dismiss it and fall back asleep. I’m proud to say that my plan worked really well. When I reached for my phone to shut off the alarm, I missed and smashed into my TV instead, knocking it into two monitors which then fell on my keyboard. To this day, I’m still finding the various flash drives and screwdrivers that were on my desk scattered around my room. Despite that chaotic morning, my life has continued on as it would have otherwise.

But will there come a day where my actions would be considered as assault? Should I be arrested and put in prison for assaulting my computer? Is it possible to hurt a computer’s feelings?

Since the technology first emerged, it has been generally accepted that computers are not conscious at all and, therefore, are not offended by my clumsy tendencies. (In my defense, a friend moved the TV a few inches and I forgot it was there.) However, many people tend not to think about the similarities between the human mind and the rapidly developing capability of machines. If brains and computers continue becoming similar to each other, there is a possibility that machines could experience life as we do.

Artificial intelligence, or “AI” for short, is defined as the intelligence exhibited by machines trying to mimic the intelligence of beings titled as “living.” Usually, AI involves perceiving the environment and reacting to it. In the past few years, the development of AI technology has accelerated rapidly due to improvements on both sides. The computer hardware used to run programs is getting stronger, faster, and more efficient. As a result, programs are increasing in complexity. Software developers are including additional sensors that let computers respond to more than a keyboard or mouse input from a computer. New robots can map their environments, recognize and remember faces, respond to questions and even make their own decisions.

At a very basic level, computers run using a series of extremely rapid electrical pulses, which flow through hundreds of millions of microscopic logic gates. These pulses are binary, meaning that they are either on or off, with no in-the-middle. The pulses aggregate to run almost all modern-day electronics.

Surprisingly, neurons in the human brain aren’t that different from logic gates. They are chained together and respond to a binary input, and then release a binary output, called an action potential. Somehow, our massive neuron chains are a component of self-awareness. The self-awareness of human beings is rarely a debated topic. If anyone has doubts, just ask them to pinch their arm and explain why it’s uncomfortable. Since there are so many parallels between biological data processing and digital, why is it assumed that the intelligence of computers is artificial intelligence? Humans go to great lengths to develop ethical code protecting living things and preventing animal cruelty, but continue living on the assumption that robots are unconscious. In reality, it’s nearly impossible to prove that an animal is any more conscious than a robot. The assumption is so strong that I probably look insane for proposing that robots might be able to experience some form of consciousness.

However, it is possible that consciousness does not result from the ability to process data. There could be a second spiritual component that we have no control over. The most advanced imaginable robot, complete with emotions, hormones, evolution, and communication, might not really feel anything unless it is in possession of the spiritual component. The presence of a second component is a theory of existence called “dualism.” From this perspective, a robot wouldn’t really be able to feel, as it has no spirit. It could only pretend.

Ultimately, I’m not arguing that robots are or are not conscious. I’m merely providing structure for debate. As our machines develop, the necessity of addressing this issue increases. Some countries have already declared robots citizens, while others have used robots for some ethically questionable things. Whether we justify our actions ethically or as the protection of rights, it is important to determine exactly where robots stand in our society.