Sentience: The next moral dilemma

Humankind will have to decide how to live with a new sentient race

Sometime in the future machines will reach a level of intelligence that will challenge, or even surpass our own.

Revered members of the academic community deem the event an inevitability. These include names like Ray Kurzweil -- inventor of the first reading machine for the blind -- Berkeley's John Searle and perhaps the man who deserves most credit for adding legitimacy to this belief, Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy.

If they are right, one day man will give life to a new race of intelligent sentient beings powered by artificial means.

If we can, for argument's sake, agree that this is possible we should consider how a sentient artificial being would be received by man and by society. Would it be forced to exist like its automaton predecessors who have effectively been our slaves, or would it enjoy the same rights as the humans who created it, simply because of its intellect?

It is an enormous question that touches religion, politics and law, but little consideration is given to dawn of a new intelligent species and to the rights an autonomous sentient being could.

For a start, it would have to convince us that it was truly sentient: intelligent and able to feel (although it is debateable whether its feelings would mirror our own).

Peter Garrett, director of research and education at pro-life charity Life takes a strong stance: "I think it would take around four years of questioning before I would be satisfied that this being could be considered a person."

Garrett's prudence is perhaps born of his strong religious convictions, which can weigh heavily people's thoughts about whether or not an artificial sentient being could ever hope to be seen as an autonomous person (not to be confused with becoming a human being).

"I think even when we grant the label person to this new entity, it would still not be a human being... It is still a man made being and not made in the image of God... and while that may not be important on one level -- I think the secular world and the secular legal system regard it as being very unimportant -- I feel that the robot would still be a product of humanity, whereas man is believed to be a creation of God, made in the image and likeness of God," he says.

This is significant because it marks a boundary around us as a species and protects us from usurpers that can never hope to be like us. Or more accurately, like God.

Garrett's way of thinking is reflected when you look at why moral abuses were inflicted, for example, on black people in South Africa. Venture into the northern province of Pretoria where hundreds of thousands of Boer -- the Dutch settlers who became the fathers of apartheid -- still send their children to white only schools -- Volkskool -- and you will be told that blacks are not, like them, made in the image of God.

But Garrett thinks religions would be able, in the end, to cope with the idea of a new sentient race, and that these beings would be allowed to worship: "I think the Catholic church would say: 'You are not a human being, you are not Imago Dei but you are a person and we should perhaps have a third Vatican council to discuss terms under which persons of your type can join the Catholic church. I think it might take some time and a fair bit of getting used to but I cannot see any justified reason why it could not happen."

Even Buddhists, who profess to honour and respect "all sentient beings", as written in the Dharma, admit to some confusion over artificial worshippers. "Of course we believe all sentient beings have the right to live a full life with all the blessings all living creatures enjoy," a spokesman for the Buddhist Cooperative in London says. "It is a curious thing to even imagine, but we believe all that has life has the right to enjoy it to its full. I see no reason to make an exception to this new life form, although I am sure initially many eyebrows will be raised, if only out of wonder."

But Garrett believes that sentient beings will never be the same as humans. "I think what we would have created would be yes a person, but not a human being and not Imago Dei. I still believe the category of human being would be very different, and one reason is that as human beings we have to move forward towards death and we have to learn how to face that. That is part of being human."

In the film Bicentennial Man in which Robin Williams plays Andrew, a sentient robot who looks, feels and thinks like a human but is still classed as a droid, the death issue provides the final step toward the revered status of "human". Andrew swaps his mechanical innards for a set of organic ones that eventually age and kill him off in his sleep, earning him the posthumous award of human being.

The reality of artificial beings being granted immortality through upgrades and repairs does nothing to quell the fears of those who believe robots could one day replace man as Earth's dominant species. For them at least, the question is not about whether a robot is equal to man, but rather, through its intellect and potential immortality, superior to us -- some kind of god-like race.

Take me Pt II/ Legal protection and the right to choose.

In ZDNet's Artificial Intelligence Special, ZDNet charts the road to sentience, examines the technologies that will take us from sci-fi to sci-fact, and asks if machines should have rights.

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