Episode 140 “From Agnes — With Love”

Agnes is an electronic digital computer, an intelligent machine that can solve complex problems in physics, engineering, mathematics, and chess. It can also fall in love. But unlike any of the artificially intelligent machines portrayed in episodes that come before it, including “I Sing the Body Electric,” “The Lonely,” “The Mighty Casey,” and “The Lateness of the Hour,”  “Uncle Simon,” and “Steel” Agnes does not have a body in anything like the sense that human beings have bodies. It is a physical thing that takes up space, but it does not have a head, arms or legs, eyes, ears, or anything that we have that enables us to move and perceive. Agnes is a large mainframe computer. It takes up an entire room, and consists of several connected components mounted against walls, on top of long tables, including printers and tape drives.  This is what computers looked like in the late 1950s and 1960s, and there weren’t many of them in existence. The first personal computers were more than 20 years away.

That Agnes does not have a human-like body is important. When we imagine a computer that is similar to a human being in appearance and behavior, as we do in other Twilight Zone episodes, it is easier to attribute intelligence and emotion to such machines, in a manner similar to the attribution of thought and intelligence to other humans. I can’t have direct awareness of the thoughts and emotions of other persons.  So I infer that human beings other than me have thought and emotions based on their similarity to me in appearance and behavior. The more closely a computer resembles me and other humans, the more appropriate it is to make the same inference.

There’s good reason to challenge this inference. Some argue that a computer clothed in a human-like body is still just a computer. A computer carries out operations on symbols. It reads, changes, and writes strings of symbols, and by doing so carries out calculations. Humans can also carry out symbolic calculations, but having machine do them for us is convenient, it saves time, and it frees us up to do other, more meaningful things. But calculating is not the same thing as thinking, and it is definitely not the same thing as having emotions. So a computer that appears to have thought and emotions doesn’t really have them.

This argument against artificial intelligence and emotion presupposes that an automatic symbol processing device cannot encode or bring about thought or any other mental state, cognitive or affective. Proponents of this view have offered a range of arguments to support this negative claim. The most well-known among them include John Searle’s “Minds, Brains, and Programs.” and Hubert Dreyfus’s What Computers Can’t Do. In defense of the possibility of artificial intelligence, there is the work of Alan Turing, which we’ve cited in xxxx. One of many critiques of  Searle is found in Dennett and Hoftstadter’s The Mind’s I.

Turing’s view is well illustrated by the thought experiment set out in “From Agnes — With Love.” In our discussion of “Steel” we presented Turing’s position, a position that was also articulated by Descartes, that an intelligent being is one that can communicate effectively in a natural language such as English or Chinese. If a being, natural or artificial, demonstrates that ability, Turing argued, we would have to conclude that it is intelligent. Turing did not speculate about the possible possession of emotions by digital computers. He did believe that computers could pass his test for intelligence, and he predicted that they would do so by the end of the 20th century.

Agnes passes Turing’s test for intelligence with flying colors. ‘She’ responds to English language input with the same facility as a native English speaker. Her responses are appropriate and relevant. She can ask questions, and carry on a conversation to its appropriate conclusion. She would be able to play the imitation game at the level of a human player. (See “Steel” for an explanation of the game.) All the input to Agnes is in the form of spoken or typed sentences. All the output from Agnes is in the form of printed or displayed sentences. Agnes is transforming strings of symbols, the input, into strings of symbols, the output. The crucial point is that the transformation of symbols from input to output, like our use of language, which is also a matter of transforming symbols, makes sense. That is, Agnes’s responses are appropriate responses to the things that are said to her. Using the same standard we employ to infer that we are conversing with a person who possesses a mind and intelligence, we should also infer that Agnes has a mind and intelligence, according to Turing, and many philosophers since, including Dennett and Haugeland (See Further Reading).

Even more controversial than the question of whether Agnes has thought and intelligence is the matter of her purported emotions. James Elwood, the computer scientist who works with Agnes, confides in her, and she, in turn, takes an interest in his love life. Agnes understands emotions. This is evident from her ability to give James advice about romance. When it appears that Agnes can even mislead James for her own purposes, we have evidence that Agnes is jealous, and that her jealousy is evidence that she is in love with James. When Agnes declares her love for James, the declaration makes sense as an act among the series of acts that she has already carried out.

A natural response is that “From Agnes with Love” is a possible world in which a computer can produce appropriate verbal output in a context where love, jealousy and other emotions are the subject matter, but it doesn’t follow that the a computer feels the emotions to which its verbal output refer. The dissimilarity between humans and computers, one might argue, is relevant here. The computer does not have a human brain – a prefrontal cortext, an amygdala, or a pineal gland, or any of the other organs and systems that support the emotional states we experience. Producing text about love, even appropriate text, is not being in love.

How are we to figure out what is possible? Can a digital computer possess consciousness and so have feelings of jealosy, love, envy, and hate? “From Agnes With Love” is a start at answering these questions, even though it seems that we’ve only outlined conflicting positions, and haven’t figured out which position is correct.  Attempting to describe the possible world in which a mainframe computer behaves as Agnes does here requires that we stretch our concepts, and see whether it makes sense to ascribe thought, emotion, and consciousness to a digital computer.

It must be said that this episode, like many others, really shows its age with respect to the norms of behavior in the workplace at the time, and in relation to the representation of women, the kinds of positions women occupy in the workplace, and the gender stereotypes more generally. Rod Serling could have done better, in light of the fact that women were pioneers in computer science at the time, and made fundamental contributions to the field. In fact, the person widely recognized as the first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), followed in the 20th century by Grace Hopper (1906-1992), and many others.

Further Reading:

Dennett, D. and Hofstadter, D., eds., 1981, The Mind’s I, Basic Books, 373-382.

Dreyfus, H., 1972, What Computers Can’t Do, Harper & Row.

Haugeland, J. 1985, Artificial Intelligence: The Very Idea, MIT Press.

Searle, J., “Minds, Brains, and Programs,” In Dennett and Hofstadter, 1981, 353-372.

Turing, Alan, 1950, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind Vol. 59: 433-460. (also cited in “The Lonely” and “Steel”)

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