karen shea, captain's log


Sat, Feb 20 2021

do androids even

Shortly before attending the first wedding of my twenties, I made an uncharacteristic detour into the sci-fi genre with the classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. What a winner. The rich social commentary is ripe for analysis relevant not only to any human, but also any human-passing being!

The wedding, being a large social event, turned out to be a great opportunity to scratch that book-club-discussion-itch. Plus, it never hurts to have a hot conversation topic in pocket even among friends. In the buffet line:

"Oh hey Andrew. Beautiful ceremony, huh? By the way, you ever read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Then I would follow up: "Crazy stuff, right? So, what do you think? If it's so hard to answer the question of what makes humans human, is it even a meaningful question to ask?"

Or, something like that. After a few drinks (open bar) the phrasing surely drifted a little. Over tiny cacti and vegetarian fare, my assigned seating dinner mates and I discussed the difference between robots, androids and cyborgs. On the sidelines of the dance floor during the slower songs, fellow party goers and I discussed the relationship between empathy and humanity. In one of the hot tubs in the evening, there was animated discussion about...well, something, that actually might have centered on Bladerunner (my informal survey showed, more people have seen the movie than read the novella), but it was nonetheless spirited and invigorating.

Any meaningful thoughts I might have had from that night were obliterated by the hangover I suffered the next morning. My friend drove us home through rural Virginia, "Oh yeah you kept asking about that. Were you high?" "No, Jeff, just intellectually curious."

Some years later now, if I could attend another wedding in these pandemic times, I have some more questions I'd like to float to my fellow guests. Why do we worry about how to distinguish artificial intelligence from human intelligence when we already distinguish human intelligence from human intelligence in the form of elitism, racism and classism? How can we come to any meaningful decisions about whether to treat AI like humans when we don't even treat humans like humans? Do we seek intellectual escape from the reality of human rights when we ponder how we should treat AI-powered beings?