What Is ‘Sentient,’ Anyway?

Earlier this week, I discovered an exciting invention. Following in the footsteps of AIBO, Sony’s autonomous puppy robot, the startup company Ugobe (You, go be) has created an autonomous dinosaur robot for one tenth the price of AIBO. The company is adamant in their belief that this little guy can think, feel, perceive, and evolve (emotionally, intellectually). He has a network of touch-sensors over the majority of his body so he knows when he is being touched, lifted, snuggled. He has light and sound sensors in his head so he can perceive a certain amount of movement, and can understand depth to the extent that he knows when a table ends so as to not walk off. He has the ability to display emotions, from fear, anger, playfulness, shyness, joy, and more, as well as to recognize and communicate with others of his kind (dino play-dates). His operating system was designed so that he can learn, recognize his surroundings, and develop his personality over time.

I have had many a discussion about how this idea is a little foreboding for what the future holds for intelligent robotics, and still other conversations debating the intelligence and sentience of artificial life and intelligence. Is a “Designer Life Form” truly autonomous and an individual when it can only act on those movements pre-programmed into its operating system? Will people abuse these life forms and brush them off as “just machines,” as is addressed in the literature and film of the cyberpunk movement? Will these beings one day be recognized as sentient, and be given the same rights as human beings?

In the end, these questions all rely on two questions: Are autonomous robots alive (and does it matter)? And can their intelligence be defined as sentient (furthermore, sapient)?

The first way to begin answering the difficult question of life is to look towards some of the commonly accepted guidelines for what defines something as alive. This is a discussion for which there is still no absolute answer, even on the biological level.

The generally accepted list of attributes that make “life” are as follows (Wikipedia 1):
1)  Organization
2)  Metabolism
3)  Growth
4)  Adaptation
5)  Response to Stimuli
6)  Reproduction

Scientifically, bacteria are alive, but viruses are not. Both contain DNA (or RNA), feed on other living organisms, multiply and change over time, but what defines a virus as not being alive? The facts that a virus requires the use of host cells to reproduce and to metabolize are the main reasons Viruses are not considered to be alive.

Non-biological robotics (not cyborgs, as cyborgs are defined as part machine and part biological) are comprised of metals, plastics, and other material that is not living cellular tissue, so they do not have the ability to grow (physically), or reproduce in the sexual or asexual sense. They are, however, able to build replicas and updated forms, and even combine programming (digital DNA, if you will) with one another in order to create a new AI consciousness. They do, however, have an internal metabolism of sort, powered by electricity. Their organization is not cellular, though is composed of units that work together as a whole. They have the ability to sense their surroundings, respond to stimuli, and adapt.

This is no conclusive evidence that robots are alive in the scientific sense, but one must bear in mind that these definitions are in relation to biological beings, which is where sentience and sapience come into play.

Sentience is defined as consciousness in the most basic of forms. Sentient beings are able to feel, perceive, and are not necessarily self-aware. Sentiency is often confused with sapiency. A sapient being is one that holds knowledge, and has higher consciousness to the extent of apperception. Apperception is the cognitive activity of relating a new experience to a past experience to form a greater understanding of situation and self (self-awareness – “I think therefore I am”) (Wikipedia 2,3).

As the name suggests, human ideation of sapient beings is a bit on the ego-centric side. Many believe that animals are sentient but not sapient for the simply fact that they are not able to speak, and the rare few that can speak (parrots, apes using sign language) are simply repeating phrases and have a limited vocabulary that does not denote intelligent thought behind their speech. I have to argue that there are a number of accounts on both cases in which an animal exhibits conscious word choice. Some would still argue that it is a conditioned response, that the animal has been trained to say or sign “hungry” or their favorite food when they feel hunger pangs. Now I play devil’s advocate by asking, aren’t you, a conscious, living, breathing individual, simply trained, programmed, if you will, to say “I’m hungry,” from a young age?

All human knowledge is either instinctive or learned, and language and symbolical associations are trained through the programming we receive from our parents and teachers and society from the day we’re born. Though you make the conscious decision to say something, and how to say it, this is no different from how a computer may choose from a number of possible correct answers for an algorithm. This perspective is deeply rooted in psychological theory and post-modernist philosophy. These two world-views argue that you are not an individual, but a product of your environment, your history, the relationships between yourself and the people and world around you, and your actions are not acts of free will, as they are the direct response to your surroundings and your previous programming (experiences, conditioned responses). These two schools of thought would argue that you have no true choice in the things you do. From this perspective, humans truly are no more sapient than artificial intelligence, and the word artificial takes on a meaning closer to that of an artificial limb, a synthetic replica or replacement or clone of an original, instead of meaning “fake” or “false.”

At the end of the day, it seams that our programmed perceptions truly do decide the light in which we judge this sort of situation. Generally speaking, someone raised in a family with many pets that are considered part of the family will have had close relationships with those animals, and will begin to recognize similarities between their behavior and that of humans, and will begin to associate human emotions onto those creatures. Likewise, someone raised far away from animals, and taught that animals are not intelligent, or that man is king over animals, will notice in their limited contact that animals are lead more by instinct than intellect.

The same example can even be expanded to race relations. As many Caucasian elderly, middle-aged, and even suburban teens, have not been raised around a large number of African-Americans, the few they did see or hear of are either poor and on welfare, or criminals on the news. This creates a common misconception of an entire race based on limited contact, which leads to racism which, even in the most non-aggressive form (associating Africans-Americans with fried chicken, for instance), is highly offensive and leads to further subjugation of an entire race.

In the end, the truth is that we simply don’t know if Designer Life Forms (or animals) are sapient. This is a question that simply cannot be answered at this time, or may possibly never be answered. In the mean time, I think it is important that we have a respect for those things that we don’t understand (for we never know if house cats have been planning to take over the planet for the last 8000 years).


Last visited: Feb. 17, 2006.

Last visited: Feb 16, 2006.


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment