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Q & A: Sentience in AI and Animals

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Physics Van: There are many groups and people out there who think that AI (artificial intelligence) programming is unethical and the intellgent "beings" created are sentient and deserve to be free. There’s even some new referendum/amendment that might be passed allowing AI to vote. I personally think that it’s impossible to program a computer to understand and communicate with humans and it will never be done (without creating a brain). Is there a specific scientific definition for sentient? Are AI robots sentient?
- Courtland (age 15)
Courtland -

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 resolution.

(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 vary.

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.

(published on 10/22/2007)

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