Our robot overlords and defining life

Humanity’s quest for immortality and the fountain of youth might one day be solved by robotics. Imagine, 100 years in the future you are ill, feeble or merely dying as we all eventually will. How will you cope with your inevitable demise? What if death was no longer an inevitability? Instead, when you feel too old, too weak or have simply passed what our society considers the prime of life you visit your local life-replacement store. No magic pills or high-tech therapies; there you commission a replacement synthetic body and have your mind transferred into a mechanical husk indistinguishable from flesh, blood and bone – stronger, faster, safe from disease and most importantly death. But are you still you? Are we more than our minds and emotions? What about the soul (if you believe in that kind of thing)? Would your replacement be nothing more than a puppet – a mimicry of what you were in life?

Now imagine you’re at a club. It’s the perfect night. You feel good, look good and have met the most amazing person. He or she laughs at your jokes, smiles and blushes at your flirtatious advances and engages you in stimulating and thoughtful conversation. Later, maybe even months into a relationship, you discover this person of your dreams, this fairytale soul mate, is a machine. Does it matter?

Ultimately, the question is: what is life? More importantly, what makes a living creature sentient, a person? If the tests are merely self-awareness, emotions and desires, to empathize, and to think critically then it is not beyond the realm of imagination a machine could be programmed with all those qualities. Add the ability to learn and adapt (something artificial intelligence systems can already do) would we not have created a new kind of life? Is artificial life any less alive? I expect one day that question might encompass volumes of legal texts. Or, maybe, I watch too much Star Trek and read too much Asimov.

Some may have noticed I qualified my list of human-like traits with the word merely, as though they are trivial. Aren’t they? More and more research is going into teaching machines how to respond to and mimic emotional and self-awareness. So, is the gap between mimicry and authentic insurmountable? I don’t think so.

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