Sept. 24, 2001 --If you create a machine that is capable of independent reasoning, have you created life? Do you have a responsibility to that life or have you merely assembled another piece of clever hardware that will be rendered obsolete by the next new thing?
In the Steven Spielberg-Stanley Kubrick film AI (as in artificial intelligence), a robot manufacturer creates David, a synthetic boy who is programmed to love. His human owner starts a program that irreversibly fixes the cyberkid's affections on his owner.
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But by designing and building David, the robot maker has created another Frankenstein's monster. The apparently self-aware "mecha" (short for "mechanical") aches for love from his human "mother" and yearns like Pinocchio to be made a "real" boy.
The film raises both intriguing and troubling philosophical questions about what it means to be human, to have a sense of self, and to be a unique, independent being worthy of respect and rights under the law.
When David, acting to save himself from the taunts and threats of flesh-and-blood boys, accidentally injures his owners' son, he is abandoned in the woods and left to fend for himself. He finds himself in the company of freakish, broken, half-formed robots that stay "alive" by scavenging spare parts from a dump.
But just because David cries and pleads to stay with the woman he calls Mommy, and flees when he is tracked down by bounty hunters, are his instincts of terror and self-preservation genuine, or are they merely a brilliant mechanical and electronic simulation of how a real boy would respond? Does it matter?
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Nick Bostrom, PhD, a lecturer in philosophy at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., says it does matter.
"I think that as soon as an entity becomes sentient -- capable of experiencing pain or pleasure -- it gets some sort of moral status, just by virtue of being able to suffer," Bostrom tells WebMD. "Even though animals don't have human rights -- and most of us think it's acceptable to use them for medical research -- there are still limits. We don't allow people to torture animals for no reason whatsoever."