Spooning A Fork

A new sleep-aid robot comes with a birth certificate, but is it alive?

A reviewer for The Guardian’s “Wellness or hellness?” thinks not, after having reviewed the cushion-spared device that’s supposed to help users relax and fall asleep.

“I would rather spoon a fork,” he concluded.

The smart pillow comes equipped with sensors so it can mimic users’ breathing with its own sounds, and a diaphragm that moves in and out as if it’s breathing also. It can also play soothing music and special nature effects. The idea is that users hug it in bed.

The idea of “soft robotics” is a subset of an approach to AI that says robots need to appear more natural, if not human-like, so people will be more comfortable using and depending on them. Think more Rosey, the robot housekeeper on The Jetsons, and less the disembodied, murderous voice of HAL9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But if a wheezing cushion could successfully respond to a person as a pet dog or cat might, would that be tantamount to being alive or even sentient?

That’s the benchmark set by the artificial intelligence test created by computer pioneer Alan Turing; his Turing test posited that a computer that could convince a person of its conscious intelligence was, in fact, consciously intelligent. Lots of theorists argue that it’s not that simple because intelligence requires other qualities, most notably awareness of self (informed with a continuous sense of things around it in space and time, otherwise known as object permanance).

I kind of like the definition, though, since it builds on the subjective nature of experience. Each of us is forced to assume the people we meet are conscious because they appear so. But there’s no way to prove that someone else thinks or possesses awareness the way that I do, or visa versa.

We have to assume the existence of organic intelligence, so why not do the same for the artificial variety?

It gets dicier when you consider animal sentience. Do dogs and cats think, or are they just very complicated organic machines? I can attest to my cat purring when I scratch her behind the ears, and she enjoys walking back and forth across my lap when I’m watching TV. I have no idea what’s going on in her brain but she sure seems to possess some modicum of intelligence.

So back to that vibrating pillow…

The Guardian’s reviewer wasn’t satisfied with its performance, but imagine if it had done exactly what he’d expected: Instead of reminding him of cutlery, it was warm, cuddly, and utterly responsive to his breathing or other gestures. Assume he had no idea what was going on inside its brain.

Would he have a moral obligation to replace its batteries before it ran out of power?

[This essay originally appeared at DaisyDaisy]

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About Jonathan Salem Baskin

Author, Advisor, Agitator