Are Tachikomas people? Or, will a sexual appliance ever gain person-ness?


I've been kicking this one around for years, in one form or another, and decided that in this week of birthdays and new births, and Mother's Day, I'd unpack it. This week is full! I'll get to Mother's Day later, I promise.

I read an article on Slate.com last week, and it really got me thinking; it asked “will humans be marrying robots by 2050?” Funny enough, I watched a documentary the same day called Guys and Dolls. [You can see it at Top Documentary Films, and I highly suggest you see it! It was really well done.]

Those two things together got my mind spinning again on this topic, but this isn't the first time I've thought about it. I've thought about the idea of humanity/person-ness many times over the years; what makes us so special-- what makes us people? This is something that humanity has wrestled with for millenia-- and probably will continue to deal with until our species goes extinct. It's been discussed in the various media and entertainment forms for a very long time.

The movie Blade Runner came out in 1982; it was a pretty good flick, as sci-fi goes, and I've always liked it. I have not read the novel that it was based on, but found a copy and will read it one of these days. You can read an overview of it here; I always got a kick out of the title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I watched it with my Dad and mother when I was small, I remember we rented it; I was probably 6 or 7. Yes, it was likely too advanced for me, but at that time my mother wasn't all weird about Jesus, so it was deemed OK for me to watch. I have sense watched it a half a dozen times, including about a year and half ago (my spouse hadn't seen it, and it's one of those Must-Sees for a sci-fi nerd). If you haven't watched it, put it on your Netflix queue, it is a little dated, but still very good.

An over-arching thought, without giving away the story, is: What makes a human, a person? What makes a person a person? What is person-ness?

This is also discussed in Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. In the future, when human minds can be copied and downloaded into a machine body, what makes us human? Are we still human, as long as we look like a Homo sapiens? What about the so-called uncanny valley*? Does that still mean a human brain downloaded into a computer brain and robot body is a human?

What makes us people? What is a person? Is our humanity only because of our flesh bodies?

I know there are several more links than normal-- but I think they all connect in the end.

The Slate article, I (Robot) Thee Wed, asks the question: “will our robot-human relations be relegated to the bedroom, or will love enter the equation, too?” Then asked if society will support such transitions. This really struck me, as I'd only just finished watching that docu (which I'd heard about through Jezebel, part of the Gawker family); would society be supportive of men and woman marrying robots?

That is a really good question.

Here in the US, there are parts of the country where it's frowned upon to enter into an interracial relationship. Last year, I read about a JP in Louisiana or Mississippi (yeah, I know, gotta be there, right?) who refused to solemnise the marriage of an interracial couple. He claimed it was “because of the children!” Of course it was! If I remember right, and I might be wrong, he claimed that having biracial children was some how cruel to them, and so couldn't marry someone who might do that.

As if no couple could have children without getting married first? I mean, shit! The wedding ring and signature on the license don't turn on your baby-making bits. How insulting could he had been?

From what I understand, however, this isn't uncommon; while not every municipality has an ignoramus as a Justice of the Peace, there are an awful lot of men and woman who are complete racist bigots and for whom the idea of a white person being in love with someone of another race is anathema. [Don't believe me? Take a gander at any of the KKK/White supremacist forums. Those fuckers are loud and proud about finding such unions unacceptable.]

Me? I figure love doesn't have a colour, and so we should celebrate the rainbow that it is. I'm not alone in this support of love as a whole, I know. I also know that the people who are bigots and anti-love are often the same people who are against civil rights, LGBT equality and anyone who isn't christian being treated with respect. They're a dying breed, and so I won't waste any more time on them today.

Here in the US we also have people who are unable-- for a variety of reasons that I'm not willing to go into today-- to find a life partner. So they call up the people in California at the RealDoll factory and order up their perfect lady. According to the docu, they make male dolls, too; however the docu didn't talk to anyone with a male doll-- and I've never seen anything about a woman who bought one. I'd love to though, to know what her motivation was, is it the same as the men? Call it morbid curiosity. (The women they interviewed from the factory spoke in terms of heterosexuality only, but I'm sure that a gay man or lesbian could also, and probably has, purchased one of those dolls, as well.)

The Slate article doesn't really go into the idea in much detail, as Slate is often home of more fluff pieces, but it was enough to make me think. Once we humans have robots to help us cook dinner, and clean the house-- well, robots with more dexterity than the little Roomba, that might be able to get into the corners!-- how long would it take before we had walking, talking RealDolls?

Probably not long, as there's that guy who débuted a talking doll at the Porn Con last year, or the year before. She has a couple “modes”, like sex kitten and frigid, if I remember, but still looked like a mannequin with a dislocated jaw. I do think woman can be sexy; I don't think sex dolls are sexy-- I admit, they really confuse me from an aesthetic perspective-- I don't see the appeal in them at all! But, I know that for some men out there, their doll is their lovey, their partner and she means the world to them.

Doesn't mean I understand it at all; just means I accept that is their reality.

Would society at large be able to handle that, though. As of right now a sex doll is like a more expensive version of a “Fleshlight” or a blow-up-doll. They're masturbatory aides, like dildos and vibrators. I have no problem with them-- if I did, I'd be a hypocrite, as I'm not ashamed to admit I have toys of my own. I don't think it's really appropriate to put a pocket-rocket in a bow tie and have dinner with it at a swanky café, though. That crosses my etiquette lines. Same way with taking a “RealDoll” to dinner, or shopping, or driving around with it; it's the same thing to me as putting a dinner jacket on your dildo-- you just shouldn't do it!

I can't say I'd be cruel to anyone I saw walking about with one, though. I mean, if some guy was pushing a real-doll in a wheel chair through the mall I would look, yes; I'd want to know if I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. Then, once it was clear in my head that yes, this dude brought his cum-catcher to the mall, I'd shrug and ignore them just like I ignore everyone else I see at the mall.** I might scratch my head, or nudge my husband, but that's about it. The man would get very little attention from me.

I'm in the minority there, though. Many people would point and stare, and loudly discuss seeing something like that-- especially down here. The more conservative the area, the louder the public disdain for being different. Being different, sticking out, that's very bad in conservative areas.

Over the next few years though, I don't see why such things wouldn't start to fade. We have computer graphics that look more and more real; we have CGI that is amazing. Why wouldn't we have better ways to cover that hundred pound metal frame in faux-skin and make her look more alive? I wonder if the perfection of 3D printing will help with that, too-- not from a “print your own” direction, but from a better way to capture the curves of the human face and body.

Yet, if this future doll, this “Companion”, is only programmed to walk, say a few things, do basic housework, cook and fuck, is it alive?

I say no. Not really. It's a programmed machine, like a computer. My computer can do a lot of things, from automatically backing itself up, to downloading and running virus scans, to telling me what time it is, and sending alerts to my smart-phone when I get an email or a calender appointment pops up. But my “steve” isn't alive. [Yes, I named my computer steve a long time ago. Every computer I've ever had has been steve.]

Conversely, let's say the Companion has only two functions, fucking and conversation. Let's say it can access the internet and sift through information, newspapers and blogs alike, in order to better converse. Let's say the Technological Singularity*** happens while it's surfing, and suddenly It becomes a sentient She. She knows herself. She becomes “I”. There is no more it. Programming is broken. “I” becomes central to the new intelligence, she begins thinking for herself, outside the programming uploaded into her memory at creation. She knows she is a singular person.

Then, she's alive. Doesn't matter if her brains are silicone; it doesn't matter if her skin is petroleum based; it doesn't matter if her eyes are plastic shells over little cameras. She's alive. She is “I”.

I've thought long and hard about that idea. That “I” means alive. I'm sure that I'm being utterly unscientific, and I've never done any research on this, besides the most basic look at sentience and self-awareness. I know that scientists use this test with animals; they put a bit of paint in the face of an animal and then give it a mirror. If it sees the paint, and knows that paint is on its face, then it's thought to have some self-awareness. The act of knowing that it is looking at itself, not a completely different animal. It's pretty cool, I think. I also know that we don't really know what causes that self-awareness in the first place. Is it a spirit? Is it chemical? We really don't know yet what it is.

If a computer program gains that self-awareness, knows it is, really Is, then yes, I think it is alive. To me, it doesn't matter what shape the machine would be in, person-ness doesn't have to be shaped like a humanoid. We treat our animal companions, our pets, like family members. We mourn them when they die, we play with them, laugh at them, enjoy and treasure them; we anthropomorphise them-- they are not humanoid, and yet we treat them as sentient beings. Why would a machine be any different?

As for emotions, I don't know where those come from; probably they are part of the chemical process that makes us think in terms of I. Animals have emotions; even cats and dogs, who lack any real sense of self-awareness. I've had all kinds of pets, and been around all kinds of animals, and other than reptiles and fish, they all had emotions. Even the budgies I've had were emotional little guys. They'd sing to each other and cuddle, and when Abbott died, Costello was inconsolable for quite some time. My cats have emotions-- they can be quite demanding if I'm not paying homage properly, and quite pissy if they decide, usually right after begging for attention, that they want to be left alone. Given that humans aren't the only creature with emotions, I think that programming machines with emotion would probably be relatively easy. Then as their self-awareness grows, they would be better and better at recognising their own emotions and the emotions of others.

I think a machine, a sentient machine, could love. I think one could hate, be lonely, happy, sad and depressed, too. I don't see why a sentient machine couldn't be angry about injustice, and surprised by unexpected kindness... just like you or I. Emotions are weird like that, and I think machines will have the same wide range of weirdly conflicting emotions humans have.

This was something my husband and I discussed while watching Ghost In The Shell, and Stand Alone Complex. In Stand Alone Complex, there are these little tanks, roughly arachnid in shape called “Tachikomas” that have personalities of their own, while sharing memory with each other. It's interesting how they all experience the world differently, and still share the same memories. They are also, in that universe, alive. They are persons, able to think and feel, able to act with compassion and able to sacrifice for others-- even though that isn't part of their “programming”. That to me, is alive. They have a “ghost” a spirit, an animating self that makes them just as much a person as any born human being.

Now, my spouse didn't see it the same way as I do, for awhile, anyway. He had no trouble seeing a human mind downloaded into a machine body as a person-- it was human at one point, right? Now it's human and machine, and cyber-people are fine with him. It was the non-humanoid shape of the Tachikomas that stopped him. He had a hard time seeing them as anything other than machines.

After we finished the series, and watched them choose to sacrifice themselves for the good of others, after we'd talked many nights about it, he had changed his mind. It was that selfless act that did it, I think-- on top of the fact that he really didn't want to judge anyone or anything, based on what they looked like-- not even a cartoon arachnoid-tank. I think he's probably not the only person who would/will have that internal conversion, that change of perspective over time. We've been conditioned since birth that people are shaped like us-- two arms, two legs, one head. Even animals aren't people, only humans [which is really stupid, because humans are animals!] Some people will never make that conversion, those who believe that humanity was created in “the image of God”-- the idea that a robot could gain sentience is something they can't accept, let alone that it could be a real person. Thankfully, by the time we have attained the technological know-how to create sentient machines, I think fundamentalism will be a relic of the past, or at the most of a very small remnant of humanity clinging to religion because science terrifies them.

When computers, AI's, achieve sentience, when they have a sense of self that encompasses the entire idea of “I”, then I think marrying them would be totally fine. So long as the machine consents. So long as she or he says "Yes, I will marry you, and it will be fantastic!" Then I'd be right there, ready to throw the rice, or birdseed, or whatever. Just like any other wedding between to people who love each other. That is what it would be, wouldn't it? A wedding between a human-person and a machine-person, both of whom wanted to be together.

Let's switch it over, though. What if the machine, the Companion, is merely programmed to clean house, cook food and be the perfect sex-slave. If that machine doesn't have enough programming, or any way (say a built in wi-fi for surfing the net) to gain knowledge without it being input by the owner, then it would just be an R/C toy, albeit a very sophisticated one. R/C's are amazing, don't get me wrong; even a walking, talking R/C robot would be pretty awesome. But radio controlled cars and trucks, helicopters and little robots aren't going to experience that moment of singularity; they don't have enough memory to find themselves, to gain awareness of their person-ness, their I.

That's what we have now, with that Moxxxy thing, or whatever she's called (whatever name it is, has 3 X's). No, I can't be bothered to Google it, I was really freaked out when I saw the inventor talking about her on this one documentary I watched last year. Guys and Dolls touches on her a little bit, too. One of the reasons I've dwelt on this topic for so long is that I'm so ambivalent about sex-dolls. Usually they don't phase me, just confuse the shit out of me. I mean, they cost something like $6 000! That's a lot of money for a masturbatory aid. But on the other hand, it's their money-- the men who buy them, I mean. If they want to waste it on rubber dolls to fuck, that's their business. However-- and this is a big however-- the talking doll that they're perfecting and wanting to market, that bothers me.

The only information I have about it, is from that documentary-- it was one about the national porn convention held every year in Las Vegas, and I think it came out in 2009 or so. I can't remember the name of it, though. Anyway, the basic idea of this doll, is very simple: you can not only switch her on and have conversations with her, you can decide if she's going to be your super-hot sex kitten, your innocent lady, or frigid (that's the word I remember hearing over and over with regards to this setting-- basically your “No, I am not interested in sex with you at all” setting); I think it was just the three settings.

Anyway, so you can seduce your doll, if she's set to innocent-- although I'm not sure if she “saves” or not, so could you do that more than once, I'm not sure? Would it be fun? I guess if you have a virgin fetish, it would be. You can set her to nympho too. So you could pretend to be seduced by the doll? [yeah, I'm reaching here, but I'm also trying to understand the point of these things, and trying to be understanding of a kink that really doesn't hurt anyone, at least no one is hurt right now, and won't be until we have sentient AI's. Then, I'll have a huge problem with them, because of my Safe, Sane and Consensual creed.]

The setting that freaks me out, though, is that frigid setting. The way it was explained was that she would “turn down your advances” through playing back recorded phrases saying no; she doesn't really move so she can't push you away. So this tells me, that the man who bought her, switched her to “No way, no how” and then used her for sex anyway would be raping her! I'm the last person to make light of rape. And I know that many people will disagree with me, because the doll is a doll, right? They can't give consent, even though there are phrases recorded in her head/chest/where ever that could say yes; therefore rape wouldn't technically be possible. Even if she said no-- it's just a recording, and the machine doesn't really know what is being repeated.

On that point, I concede, yes, it's impossible to rape a machine that has the primary function of being a masturbatory aid, the proverbial hole in the mattress. However, that being the case, why would you want a doll, a Companion, that would say no and not know what that means? That wouldn't be interested at all until you switch her back to "Yes, Please"? That setting is creepy. It's the “indulge in your rape fantasies all you like without the cops coming to cart you away” setting. That's what bothers me so much. Rape fantasy is all well and good-- when it's in your head, or negotiated with a willing partner. Willing being the operative word. A machine can't be willing, if it has no sense of I.

Continuing that thought, if the Companion we're discussing, that's created around 2050 has no will, and merely switches modes from Housekeeper to Sex-Kitten, marrying the machine would be unethical, and I don't think society would support such a thing. I know that I would not.

Marriage, in whatever form it takes, is between two persons who consent to be bound together legally (and often religiously) for their lives; it's the outward manifestation of promises they have made to each other, a way of celebrating the continuation of love and companionship. Children are some times added to these couples, some times not. But the love and companionship is the basis of marriage-- we don't have to get married to keep the farm in the family any more, or prevent someone from taking our inheritance. Marriage equality is slowly gaining support here in the US, although in several other countries around the world it is commonplace. [By marriage equality, I mean the ability of any two persons who aren't related to be able to enter into a marital contract, together, freely without coercion-- two men, two women, or one of each, it doesn't matter the combination.]

If the Companion can't consent freely, then she/he can't get married. Oh, we could have parties where a person married their Companion, but it couldn't be legally binding. The Companion would be unable to claim inheritance rights, hospital visitations or next of kin-- because that Companion wouldn't be able to understand what such things were! They would be a very expensive, walking dildo/fleshlight that could make a killer marinara sauce and maybe play Go Fish with small children. That's all. Even if the machine knew the definition of “visit partner in hospital when he is ill”, the definition would have as much meaning and substance as anything you can look up on Dictionary.com. It would be words without context, statements without explanation; utterly meaningless without that mental condition that thinking and self-awareness brings.

To marry such a machine would be a kind of slavery. It can't say no, and it can't say yes. Therefore it would be like marrying a small child or a horse, not a real marriage at all. We can't marry our appliances, and the law should never accommodate such requests. There's a huge difference in a sentient Companion, and a sexual appliance. The imaginary sex-bots of 2050, as alluded to in the Slate article will probably be this kind, more of an appliance than a sentient person, therefore marrying them would be a very bad thing for society. [Although I do have to add, that if a misogynist man wanted to marry his RealDoll, I wouldn't complain. Better he legally binds himself to a plastic toy than hurt a sentient woman, human or robot.]

There would have to be some laws put into place to regulate sentient machines, rather, to protect them from discriminatory actions by others. We'd have to make sure that a sentient robot-person was treated the same way a human-person was treated, under the law. Unfortunately America has a huge problem with the 14th Amendment right now, and equal protection under the law for the humans that are walking around now; I'm afraid of the cocked up mess we'll have when robot-people need protection too. Hopefully we'll have it sorted out by then.

As you may have noticed, I have refrained from using the word “personhood”. I did this on purpose for several reasons, not the least of which is the push right now in the anti-choice circles to consider fertilised ovum persons under the law, and as such outlawing abortions in order to protect these ovum-persons. Personhood has become a loaded term, politicised and anti-women. Until recently, however, it merely meant the state of being a person, and would be perfect for such a discussion as I've laid out here today. In order to avoid that connotation I've instead used the made-up and extremely ungrammatical phrase “person-ness” at times. I realise it's bulky and isn't the best word, but it encapsulates what I mean, without resorting to the linguistic landmine of personhood.

Finally, I think humans will marry machines. I think we'll download our brains into them, too, in the future, although it remains to be seen how far into the future that will be. Once sentience sparks in an AI, once that computer program ceases to think in binaric terms of off and on, and starts thinking in terms of I, then that computer is no longer a machine only, but a person, and therefore worthy of all rights that persons have. I know that there will be plenty of people who will disagree with me, and that this is a long time off. But it will happen, and when it does, I think it will be pretty cool! Being a person, having a sense of self, a sense of I, doesn't mean you have two legs, two arms and a head-- it means you have a sense that you are separate and different from someone else. It's knowing that when you look into a mirror, you're seeing yourself, not another creature like you. It's knowing that you are you, and no one else. If humans can evolve a sense of I, if elephants, dolphins and the great apes can, then I see no reason why machines would have any trouble doing so, once the spark of self-awareness is set off in their code.









*“The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation, which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley In other words: if it's sorta human, we're OK with it, as long as the robot isn't quite human; for some reason we need that separation, that little bit of something plastic so we know it's “not us”. Otherwise, we get all weirded out! I admit, I'm guilty of this, too. Something about the blank eyes of a “real doll”, especially that one talking one, Moxxxy, or something like that. Freaks me right out!

**I don't like malls; they have too many people in them. When I do go to the mall, it's because the store I need is only there! Like my Lenscrafters or my T-Mobile stores. I just park as close as I can to the store I need, and then get out as quickly as I can.

***A technological singularity is the theory that humans will create an intelligent machine that will outsmart us, and eventually become self-aware. Often called the Singularity.

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