Sophia’s problems - Maurice Cauchi

Sophia’s problems - Maurice Cauchi

A recent ‘current affairs’ programme emphasised the accoutrements of a pretty doll equipped with not just a pretty face that can flutter eyelashes and say a few words in Maltese – which many dolls can do these days –  but which apparently can answer some questions of sorts.

Misleadingly, the commentary states: “Sophia is a human robot which speaks and is able to express all the emotions which are normally expressed by humans.” No convincing evidence was presented to convince anyone of either of these qualia.

The question arises: when is robot not just a robot but becomes a human being? Having superior intelligence is apparently not enough. Computers (like Deep Blue) can beat chess champions or even the more complicated ‘Go’ game, and yet have not been considered to be human.

Philosophers have argued as to whether consciousness is a peculiarly human requisite. While necessary, it is certainly not sufficient. Looking at your pet dog’s eyes would be enough to convince you that that they are very conscious. So, maybe, what is essential is not just ‘consciousness’ as such, but ‘self-consciousness’ – the ability to recognise oneself as a unique being, with a unique personal history.

The suggestion of honouring robots with citizenship would be laughable if it has not, apparently, already occurred in Saudi Arabia – a State not renowned for respecting human rights

Nobody has so far been able to assess this. In spite of intensive research on brain activity, all we can say now is that consciousness is located in a specific part of the brain, namely, in the posterior part of the cortex (the outermost layer of the brain), but controversy and confusion still exist as to how a material brain can ‘exude’ such a thing called ‘consciousness’ which is the antithesis of being material, the stuff from which it emerges.

From the clinical point of view, distinguishing consciousness in a living person from unconsciousness in a person in a vegetative state has been a major and vexed problem. ECG – a measure of electrical activity in the brain – has been used as a distinguishing test, but even that is not 100 per cent reliable. More recently a newer test known as the ‘zap-and-zip’ test, which involves ECG activity following electrical stimulation of the brain, has been shown to be more reliable, but even that has its limitations, and at best distinguishes a conscious state from unconsciousness.

Alan Turing, who is credited with solving the wartime German ‘Enigma’ code, devised a simple way of distinguishing a robot from a human being. He said that after five minutes of questioning, one should be able to determine whether the answers are coming from a computer or a human being locked up in a separate room. Just coming up “with the knowledge that we put there”, as the creators of Sophia allegedly stated, is certainly not sufficient to pass the Turing test.

There is no question that artificial intelligence (AI) is improving all the time, to the point of far exceeding human capacities. We all know that even now computers have reached and surpassed that stage. Even, if computers will one day control all activities of mere humans, that still does not make them human.

The suggestion of honouring robots with citizenship would be laughable if it has not, apparently, already occurred in Saudi Arabia – a State not renowned for respecting human rights. 

While it is a fact that AI has become one of the hottest topics, it is well to appreciate that ethical issues cannot merely be ignored in a frenzied attempt to rush to become among the first nations to harness AI to human needs.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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