Episode 128 – “Uncle Simon”

In 1964, in contrast to today, robots were not ubiquitous. They did, however, have a significant presence in The Twilight Zone.  The unintended consequences of robotic athletes competing in sports is explored in “The Mighty Casey” and “Steel.” A mechanical care-giver  in “I Sing the Body Electric”  exceeds everyone’s expectations in that role. “The Lateness of the Hour”  features a staff of robotic servants servicing their creator and his family, though the boundary between the two groups is blurred. “The Lonely” is about a robotic companion for a convicted felon banished to an asteroid.

“Uncle Simon,” like “In His Image,” considers how someone might create a robot that extends one’s personhood in time and space. One way of doing this is by creating a robotic duplicate of oneself, as Alan Talbot does in “In His Image.” Another is by creating a robot continuant of oneself, where a robot continues the creator’s existence after the creator has died. In the former case there is a special difficulty: If Alan Talbot creates a duplicate of himself while he continues to exist in his “home” body, then the duplicate, however similar to him, is not him. Two different individuals cannot be the same individual. Uncle Simon’s robotic creation, in contrast, is only activated when the human Uncle Simon dies. There is no temporal overlap. So Uncle Simon the robot can be the same person as Uncle Simon the human being, in the sense of “same person” as “the same person over time.” Is the robotic extension of Uncle Simon really Uncle Simon? Does Uncle Simon get to live on as a robot?

After the death of the human Uncle Simon, we are introduced to his robotic creation as a lumbering and awkward machine, with arms, legs, a torso and a head, but one with limited mobility and at least initially, with limited cognition and speech. This robot doesn’t look like a human being in most respects, and it does not have the full mental resources of Uncle Simon.  The robot begins its cognitive and motor development and by the end of the episode is at least cognitively and affectively similar to the Uncle Simon.

In his 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” Alan Turing suggested that a promising strategy for building a machine that thinks is to build a machine that can learn, rather than trying to build a machine that is fully intelligent from the start. Indeed, the approach Turing recommended is widely used in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

One might object to the claim that the robot is Uncle Simon for several reasons. First, one might argue that a robot can’t be a person at all, and so it can’t be the continuation of a person. It is a machine, and as such it can’t think or be conscious. Second, as we’ve already noted, the robot doesn’t look like Uncle Simon. It is made out of different stuff. It is not carbon-based, but largely metallic and rubber. It is a synthetic being, not an organic one. It is grotesque, unlike the robotic forms in “The Lonely” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” which are indistinguishable from human forms. Third, though it clearly has a personality that is very similar to the personality possessed by Uncle Simon, similarity of personality  is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity.  Merely having Uncle Simon’s mysogynistic character traits doesn’t make him Uncle Simon.  Finally, this robot doesn’t even have much of a face. When he asks for hot chocolate, it’s really difficult to understand this request, since he lacks a mouth. How is he supposed to drink hot chocolate or anything else? (See the discussion of faces in “Living Doll”)

The robotic successor to Uncle Simon is clearly different from the original in the respects we’ve just listed. Yet this and other episodes challenge our unwillingness to attribute personhood to artifically intelligent embodied forms. Both “The Lonely” and “I Sing the Body Electric” make powerful cases for the appropriateness of granting personhood to these machines.  “Uncle Simon” provides an additional argument.

John Locke argued that personhood is as much a legal notion as it is a metaphysical one. He wrote:

“Person” a forensic term. Person, as I take it, is the name for this self. Wherever a man finds what he calls himself, there, I think, another may say is the same person. It is a forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit; and so belongs only to intelligent agents, capable of a law, and happiness, and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness,- whereby it becomes concerned and accountable; owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present.

Locke suggests that personhood extends to our past, that personhood has to do with that to which we are legally connected. While here Locke only mentions the connection to our past, it also extends to the future. If I promise to purchase your car, I’m binding myself in an obligation to carry out the transaction, and in doing so I bring about certain rights that you have to demand that I act as I should. Uncle Simon creates a legal document that places certain requirements on the behavior of Barbara, his niece and long-time caregiver, to treat the robot as she treated Uncle Simon. Barbara must obey the commands of the robot, and these commands are, by extension, the commands of Uncle Simon. He has found a way to continue his relationship with her from beyond the grave. In Locke’s forensic sense, the robot is the same person as Uncle Simon.

Further Reading:

Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1690, Book II, Chapter XXVII, “Of Identity and Diversity”. (also cited in “Person or Persons Unknown”)

Turing, Alan, (1950), “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” cited in “The Lonely.”

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