Prove 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?