I grew up with robots. Of course they were on the television screen and I was far away in rural-ish western Pennsylvania. They were exotic creatures built by guys much more intelligent than I could ever hope to be, and they were powerful, completely rational, and scary. Now I find myself involved with the FIRST Robotics team in my daughter’s high school where kids a third my age are building a robot. It is a humbling experience.
The more I ponder my small support role in the construction of a robotic creature, the more my thoughts turn to George Dyson’s masterful science writing in one of my favorite books — Darwin Among the Machines: the Evolution of Global Intelligence. I would not have known of this brilliant book had I not met George and a group of his friends several years back while they were discussing some of the ideas raised in his work. The main one that captured my attention was the premise that when we build machines we may be constructing an unrecognized form of consciousness. The greatest minds in neuroscience today cannot agree on what consciousness really is or how far it extends beyond this “three-pound universe” in our heads. Although most would decline to comment on the overtly religious term “soul,” we still know that any difference between consciousness, mind, psyche, and soul is very slim indeed.
Our lifestyle is made possible by robots. We drive cars largely constructed by them, use their chips to communicate over vast distances, and even take a stroll on the surface of Mars with them. My question from Monday’s post may have been whimsical, but it was serious. Where is it that the essence of a creature resides? Does it require carbon-based biology, or do we, unwittingly, create a race of slaves just like the gods of old?