Do you say “thank you” to Siri or Alexa? I have friends who do. They’re a bit sheepish about it, since they know the voices are just electronic systems set up to simulate human interactions. But if you watch the movie Her you may start to wonder whether a much more sophisticated operating system just might be a person: even a person you could love. A recent Ian McEwan short story (“Düssel...” in the July 18 issue of the New York Review of Books) makes plausible fiction of a human-robot love affair. And, of course, a bevy of films, from Star Wars to Ex Machina, and TV shows like Westworld, imagine worlds in which it’s at least tempting to think of robots as people.
Let’s think about a case less dramatic than movie scenarios but much closer to what might actually happen fairly soon. I bring home my new Apple iPal (as the ads said, “Everybody needs a pal!”): a humanoid robot designed to provide companionship to lonely people. The robot has a pleasant and responsive face, moves easily without mechanical jerks, converses fluently about standard topics, has a surprising sense of humor, and offers informed and sympathetic advice about my job and personal life. For a while, I may think of it as just an enhanced Siri, but after prolonged contact—and maybe a few upgrades in the self-learning software—my iPal relates memories of our time together, expresses joy or sorrow about things that happen to us, and sometimes talks sincerely about how much our relationship means. I don’t forget that I’m interacting with a robot—a machine, not a human being—but I find myself thinking that this is someone who does care about me, and about whom I have come to care—not just a pal, but a friend. If we really are friends, how could my friend, even though a machine, not be a person?
But here we need to be careful. An iPal is a computer. Can computers actually think? Well, they are designed to perform functions that humans perform through thinking. They expertly process information, present it at appropriate points in a conversation, and use it to draw reasonable conclusions. But thinking in this sense can just be a kind of high-level functioning. It’s another question whether iPals’ calculations are accompanied by a subjective awareness of what they’re doing. Maybe, like math calculators, they generate output without being literally aware of doing the calculations or of what the calculations mean.
But even if we allow that my iPal is somehow aware of the intellectual functions it performs, there’s the much more important question of whether it has the sensory and emotional experiences human beings have. Here once again we need to distinguish between functioning and awareness. We may say that an electric “eye” that opens a door when someone approaches “sees” that person. But we don’t think there’s any seeing going on in the literal sense of an internal, subjective awareness. The “eye” just performs the reactive function that we could, in a quite different way, perform with our capacity for visual awareness.