The Robot Other

I was on a panel at Philcon this weekend called “The Robot Other,” which asked why we are so attracted to stories written about sympathetic AI characters, especially those written from the AI’s perspective. A question from someone in the audience prompted what I thought was the best insight from the conversation: In our cultural dialogue, we are moving more and more toward the consensus that humans are essentially machines — evolved biological machines that execute our programming on the data that comes in through our senses. The logical conclusion, if we are nothing more than material bodies, is that our sense of conscious agency is an illusion. After all, each neuron in our brains that fires was directly caused by a previous neuron that fired, which was caused by another, or by some external stimulus. It’s all deterministic, or at least probabilistic at the quantum level. This belief creates a certain amount of angst, however, because it flies in the face of our most basic human experience — that we make real choices that matter. To come to grips with this unsettling notion that we are nothing but machines, we eagerly devour stories about AIs — machines that we suddenly fear we have a lot more in common with that we might previously have thought.

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