Episode 7 – “The Lonely”

Loneliness – the cure is usually real interaction with other living and breathing human beings. Those others are not automobiles or other mechanical devices – such things cannot comfort someone who lacks the comfort of other persons. Cory is the convict of the future – banished to his own asteroid for fifty years for a murder he did not commit. His only companionship comes from the visit of a supply crew four times a year, and only the captain of the crew is sympathetic to Cory’s condition.

The captain, Alanbee, delivers a new machine on one of the quarterly supplymissions. When asked by a crew member what’s in the box, the captain says: “I’m not quite sure, really. Maybe it’s just an illusion. Maybe it’s salvation. I don’t know.”  That’s our hint as philosophers that there’s an issue out there. What is in the box? Is it just another machine for Cory to tinker with?

It is a machine, a machine in the form of a woman, and the manual says that the machine, the robot, is physiologically and psychologically just like a human being…”  But is “she”?  We know that she’s a robot, and in the end we see “her” innards – wires and other robot stuff. But externally and perhaps functionally, or at least on the outside, she is physiologically indistinguishable. One of the first things we see is that she can cry in response to Cory’s bad treatment. That’s a start at making good on the manual’s claim to both her physiological and psychological indistinguishability from a human being.

In the landmark paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” Alan Turing argues that if a computer replaced a human being in a parlor game called “the imitation game” and played the game as well as a human would, we should attribute intelligence to the machine. This test for intelligence is now called “the Turing Test.” (See “Steel” for a full explanation of the Turing Test.)

Alecia’s Turing Test is not the imitation game, but rather her fully appropriate response to Cory’s mistreatment. He suddenly realizes that robot or not, he’s hurt her feelings, and he apologizes.  This seems too quick in comparison to the tests for mentality proposed by Turing and others, but doesn’t Cory just act as we would act with another human being? Perhaps the quality – the reality of her response – was so striking that Cory could no longer deny that he was in the presence of a thinking, emoting other.

As Cory and Alecia interact, Alecia comes to share many of Cory’s beliefs and desires. Though he says that their relationship is bizarre, Cory declares his love for the machine: “I love Alecia – nothing else matters.” Alecia may be no ordinary companion, but Cory takes her to be one. Not only does he attribute beliefs and desires to her – he takes her to be a fully conscious entity. Cory believes that Alecia has beliefs, desires and sensations.  Does that make her a conscious and thinking thing, or is Cory confused?

Many people believe that machines, even computers, are incapable of intelligence because they are programmed. Kim Sleszynski, for example, writes “Humans build computers and put information into them. The computer can only put into use the information that has been put into it. It cannot form it’s own ideas and/or beliefs.” Thacher Denison gives a similar argument. Remember, however, that Cory interacts with Alecia over a significant period of time. If she did not have beliefs and other mental states, wouldn’t that soon be pretty obvious to Cory?  Again, Alecia passes a much more stringent test than Turing’s. (Kim and Thacher were students in an earlier class.)

When Cory is granted a pardon and is told that he can only take fifteen pounds of his stuff, his inventory of his stuff doesn’t include Alecia. Clearly she isn’t his stuff – she’s another person with the right to board the ship. Leaving her behind would be murder. For Cory, there’s no way she can be left behind. She’s not a machine. “She’s a woman. She’s gentle and kind. She kept me alive.” A moment later, when Alecia’s non-woman innards are revealed after a flurry of bullets,  Cory looks on in shock.  Does he now believe that he mistook Alecia for a woman, or is he in shock at her “death?”

“The Lonely” is a thought experiment. It presents us with an individual who is a robot, yet who appears to have beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, as well as sensations and emotions. Were we to come across such a being, would we attribute actual beliefs, desires, hopes and fears to such a being, and would we be correct in doing so? If not, why not? Do members of our species – or living things – have a lock on consciousness and intentionality?

Further Reading:

Turing, Alan, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind Vol. 59, Issue 236 (Oct., 1950), 433-460.


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