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Prove That I Am Sentient

June 14, 2015


Prove to the court that I am sentient.

Picard’s famous challenge from STNG Measure of a Man inverts the question most asked about AI, “Prove it’s sentient.” There is a growing drumbeat about the Singularity, the day the machines take over. My own take is the Mitochondrial Singularity, the argument that the singularity is ongoing, ever since humans invented letters and numbers; or, to be fair to artists, perhaps when they drew the first image on the wall of a cave. As we outsource our abilities, eventually we’ll be left with the mitochondrial role of powering the machine; that is, turning it on.

Another sign of our growing mitochondrialization is the appropriation of our organic tissue nature, our “water ware”, into machines. The proto-mitochondrial bacteria, after all, had all sorts of useful genes that got appropriated into their host nuclei–for the host benefit, or the benefit of the mitochondrion, the question is unclear.

In our human context, twentieth century robot builders would have scorned the idea that human tissue might have properties useful for a silicon ship. Human tissue is wet and slimy, nothing like the clean, dry shininess of silicon. Yet Stanford scientist are now building computers out of water, in which water flow replaces electron flow in generating logic gates. At least, that’s what I understand from the PacMan-like image above. “Little bags” of water, for logical manipulation of matter. Um, how are those not like human cells?

More to the point, NIH is building Tissue Chip for Drug Screening. The ideas is to incorporate human tissues into a computer chip and design instruments to test the effect of toxins. A more advanced idea is Organs-on-Chip, funded by DARPA and others. Known officially as the innocuous-sounding mouthful Human Toxicology Project Consortium, the stated goal is to model organs, even a “human-on-a-chip” using stem cells. And of course, we’re all about building organs for transplant. Printing out organs on our cute 3D printer.

Excuse me–Human on a chip? Does the word “being” fit in there, as in, “human being on a chip”? Even with the best of intentions, what does this mean?

Suppose we wish to test toxicity and brain exposure, the effect of toxins on brain function, cognition, affect etc. Brain on a chip? Prove to the court that I am (not) sentient.

At the climax of Data’s trial, Maddox argues (spoiler) that Data is a machine, a Pinocchio with a human pulling the strings. Data is “an idea conceived of by the mind of a man. Its purpose is to serve human needs and interests. It’s a collection of neural nets and heuristic algorithms. Its responses dictated by an elaborate software program written by a man. Its hardware built by a man. And now a man will shut it off.”

Any mitochondrion can shut off a cell. In fact, it happens all the time; as our mitochondria mutate, they shut down the cell, causing disease or aging. Likewise, we humans slide down our own mitochondrial vortex. Then what will our sentience mean?

  1. June 14, 2015 8:52 pm

    Thanks for the article—fascinating new stuff, as always. The debates over sentience and mind/body/chip interface and inter-use remind me of the Era of Exploration. During the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New’ World, we concerned ourselves with colonization, trade and sovereignty—it is only in looking back that we see it also as a period of intentional and unintentional genocide, land theft, and a revolution that would ultimately push the then-great powers into the background.

    In other words, the people of those times had many concerns, but no idea of the big-picture concerns—and no context to think about them within. Likewise, we have as little clue about the tech future because it has so many factors we don’t fully see and appreciate. We won’t even begin to imagine the changes this tech will bring—until we’ve begun to use it in our daily lives.

    If something as innocuous-seeming as an I-phone can spark an Arab Spring then the unimaginable changes that ‘digitized health’ will bring can only give us pause. Fortunately, nothing will stop it—even if people had the imagination to fear it properly—because along with all these mysteries comes one certainty—it will all make pots of money.


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