In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man (February 1989), a representative of the Federation seeks to dismantle and clone the android Data, a mission that ultimately brings up the question of whether artificial intelligence can be sentient and bestowed with human-like rights. Data ultimately avoids destruction after the council fails to find a way to prove that Captain Picard, a human, is sentient either.
Mercifully, modern concepts of AI are a long way from looking and acting just like us. They’re much more likely to take the form of computers or pieces of code on a standard laptop.
However, their applications in day-to-day life are growing. Functions like data-sorting, pattern recognition, and creating challenges in video games are about as close as we’ve come to an intelligent machine so far.
As AI becomes more mainstream, though, its uses will become more fantastic. This is pretty important given that current AI systems are already highly competent. For example, computers can assist human researchers with cancer detection. Mozziyar Etemadi’s AI is a sophisticated and efficient technology: back in 2019, a study determined that the system successfully identified early stages of lung cancer 94% of the time. If this level of efficacy was apparent a couple of years ago, it’s highly likely that further improvements will be made to enhance the technology even further.
Another example of an algorithmic tool used in the present day is a state-of-the-art system called Beth, which is a skilled horse predictor that aids sports bettors when making picks. The service uses existing data sets regarding weather conditions, previous results, and odds, etc. to come up with a likely race winner. This advanced method is objective and empirical, giving bettors an educated edge when they make their selections so that they’re not relying solely on luck.
These are just two of the many examples of AI in practice in the modern era and undoubtedly, there’ll be far more in the years to come.
Characters like Data, the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, and the Geth in Mass Effect are frequently used in science fiction to explore concepts such as human overreach and whether we can own lifeforms that we have created, however intelligent they may be. In almost every scenario, our hubris turns our artificial allies against us, as their right to self-determination conflicts with our refusal to accept their sentience.
Despite how limited current AI models are, there’s some evidence that we’ve taken our first steps on the path to living machines. According to The Guardian, court cases in South Africa and Australia have ruled in favor of an AI in a patent battle. In brief, in those two corners of the world, computers can now own anything they invent, like a song. The UK and USA will reportedly make their own decision on the topic in late 2021.
Of course, at such an early point in the development of AI, there’s no right or wrong answer. An article published in The Law Review in 2020 specified dreaming – that is, yearning for something – as endemic to humans and, therefore, a clear sign that a computer deserves rights. It might sound simplistic but an (unprompted) question as mundane as “I want a biscuit” could represent a seismic shift in how AI brains function.
Inevitably, AI may soon begin to resemble great apes in terms of their self-awareness. The late gorilla Koko understood basic grammar and asked for a kitten to look after in 1983. This request falls under the definition of AI sentience provided by the previous source. However, gorillas only have certain rights in Spain, which makes a mockery of our current understanding of sentience and just who or what deserves ‘human’ treatment.
It may be that humans simply aren’t ready to share our planet with something just like us, even if we invented it.