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Androids, Empathy, and Faith

I was pleased to see that this year's New Student reading selection committee took a creative turn with Phillip K. Dick's Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep, a science fiction novella that explores what it means to be human. I was also pleased to see that rather than sticking 3,600 teenagers in a stifling hot Barton Hall to be bored by a panel discussion, this year's reading project introduced several thematic lectures that students could choose to attend:

Speaking in Statler Auditorium, associate professor of communication and information science Jeff Hancock referenced the novel's Voigt-Kampff "human-detector" empathy test as he engaged students in an "interrogation" to define humanity, and looked at deception in the age of social networks. His lecture was titled "More Human Than Human: Virtual Worlds and Imagination."

Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis, discussed the technology in the book and the roles machines play in our lives in his talk, "Why Electric Sheep Need Human Shepherds" at the Schwartz Center. Other "Android" lecturers were Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and information science, on "What Do Robots Dream Of?" in Baker Lab; "Pets of the Future" with clinical sciences lecturer Gretchen Schoeffler; and Thomas Whitlow, professor of horticulture, with "Biodiversity, Ecocomplexity, and the Human Experience" in Call Alumni Auditorium.

I must say that this years Androids selection and last year's choice of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath have both been particularly inspired choices after a long series of duds. Let's hope the trend continues.

I also had the pleasure of reading Androids this summer as part of my local Cornell Book Club.

While we did spend some time gossiping on the nature of the romantic relationship between Rachel and Deckard, we also produced some more productive conversation as well. Given that one of the major conceits of the plot is that empathy is a useful trait for being able to discern the difference between humans and androids, we ended up having a rather invigorating two-hour discussion on the meaning of empathy and whether or not we agreed with Dick's premise.

One of the ironies that we narrowed-in on was that the humans in the book didn't seem to have much empathy for the plight of androids on Earth, especially in light of the fact that the androids didn't pose any material threat to human existence. All of the androids we encountered in the book simply wanted to live a life of peace and dignity with the same fears and dreams that we all have; it was only in response to human bounty hunters did they turn violent.

By contrast, humans did focus a fair amount of empathy towards the plight of much less sentient creatures than the androids, their pets. Deckard did seem to nurture some feelings of empathy for the androids, but said emotions were undeveloped at best and left unresolved by the end of the book.

So if we humans are unable to show empathy for something that is much like ourselves in its hopes, dreams, and fears, does that make us somehow less than human?

The conversation then moved to what might be a better way to discern a human from an android, and I proposed the notion of faith: the idea of firmly believing in something without having proof of its existence. Would faith be a better litmus test for discerning the human android divide?

I don't have a background in cognitive science or artificial intelligence (hell, I don't have a background in anything I am talking about in this post), but I do suspect it would be rather hard, if not impossible, to program a machine to believe in something it doesn't already know about. In contrast, it's not hard to see how empathetic sub-routines with machine learning processes could be developed into a machine. (Simple recoil at the suggestion of a baby-skinned briefcase, right?)

Therefore any faith instilled into an android would be merely tautological -- it has faith because it was programmed to believe in its faith. This is in comparison to human faith -- be it belief in a deity, belief in an afterlife, or even belief in human uniqueness -- which could be considered to be self (or species) developed and sui generis.

Humans can place faith in their own uniqueness, even if we aren't necessarily unique. But would androids be able to place faith in anything other than what they have been programmed to do?

While we had this conversation back in July, it's interesting to have these thoughts re-appear amidst the national debate (if I can even dignify it with such a term) over the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. I'll join President Obama in not commenting on 'the wisdom' of the suggested locale, but suffice to say that a lot of our fellow citizens are currently demonstrating an outstanding lack of empathy for the religious beliefs of others -- in complete disregard for the founding principles of this country. But there's certainly enough faith (e.g. in the Islamic faith being evil to the core, etc.) to go around.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 23, 2010 (#)

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