Before I answer your question, I feel that I should point out that
I don't actually have a personal opinion of any kind on this issue, and
I don't really know that much about AI. But there is a very similar
argument regarding the definition/measurement of sentience among
animals (particularly primates), which I think is very applicable here.
When it comes to animals, there are a number of things which scientists
try to measure - here are a few examples:
(1) The ability to observe and respond to one's environment. This
requires sensory perceptions and the ability to react to those
perceptions. This is a pretty basic property of life, although the
extent to which various creatures can do it varies widely. Most (all?)
AIs already possess this ability.
(2) Intelligence. *"The ability to learn and understand, the
ability to cope with a new situation" Many animals, including primates,
pigs, and dolphins, have been shown to have very high intelligence.
Some AI's have also been shown to possess a high level of intelligence.
(3) Sentience / Consciousness. To be *"able to feel and think".
This is a tricky one. There is some very strong evidence out there
indicating that certain species of animals are capable of both emotion
and rational thought, but the argument hasn't yet reached final
(4) Self-awareness. In the animal debate (and also the AI debate, I
suspect), this is a big deal. Does the animal have awareness of itself?
There are a zillion different experiments out there to test this, and
they all seem to rely on a different idea of what proves
self-awareness. For example, some definitions require that an animal
understand how its own movements affect the image in a mirror. Some
depend on an animal's ability to lie. Some even rely on the fact that
carnivorous animals don't try to eat their own flesh. In the end, this
is still a very nebulous issue, and the answers aren't clear.
As for the issue of rights, it's even more fuzzy. Let's look the
voting issue... Take yourself as an example. You're a 15 year old
American - you're plainly capable of perceiving and reacting to your
environment. You have intelligence and feelings, and you are aware of
yourself as an individual. But you still don't have the right to vote.
There is a wide range of "rights" out there. Which ones apply to
which creatures is the big question. Many people argue that there is a
certain set of "basic rights" which should apply to all creatures that
meet certain criteria, but both the rights and the criteria tend to
So what's the right answer? Honestly, I don't know. And for the
time being, I don't think anybody really does (although some people
certainly seem to think they do). And chances are good that no one ever
really will. Just what's right and what's wrong is an issue that
humankind is not likely to come to agreement on any time soon.
My best suggestion is that you read up on the literature out there
and come to your own conclusions. But as you're reading, keep in mind
that very few articles are truly objective, and almost every author has
their own agenda. So try to learn as much as you can about all the
sides of the issue.
* Webster's New World Dictionary
, V. Neufeldt (editor in chief), copyright 1995 by Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, NY.
(republished on 07/18/06)