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A reader’s thoughts on why computers don’t become human, even in media

A friend writes back regarding Star Trek’s (literal) computer geek Commander Data, whom we referenced here, trying to train a cat (a feat few humans have ever achieved*). Our friend offers,

If I may add another thought, or rather, expand upon what I’d previously said

The thing about Commander Data is that he’s a person only pretending to be a computer program. I don’t mean the obvious point that the actor who plays the character is a person, I mean that the character Data is a person in just the same way that every other character in literature is a person — and a human person, at that (human persons being the only sort which which human beings are familiar).

That the author of Watership Down calls ‘Fiver’ a rabbit doesn’t make him a rabbit; he’s a human person pretending to be a rabbit. Likewise, that the writers of Stak Trek call Commander Data a computer program doesn’t make him one; he’s a human person pretending (and not very well, at that) to be a computer program.

Here’s Data reciting a “poem” about the cat:

Here’s Fiver of Watership Down:

* the cat is a special case because 1) he is observing you 2) he knows what you want 3) he doesn’t care what you want 4) he does what he feels like 5) he intends to go on living off you anyway. 6) he doesn’t see why you should mind. 7) he’s right; you don’t mind.

That is what makes cats so charming to those who like them.

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2 Responses to A reader’s thoughts on why computers don’t become human, even in media

  1. Star Trek: The Next Generation- Season 2 episode 9 stardate 42523.7 – Lt Commander Data is a sentient being

    Just sayin’….

  2. An interesting question is whether a computer program could ever be made to pretend to be human in a way that would be convincing (the Turing Test revisited). AI folks have been trying for decades, but they still cannot write a program that has “common sense”. But if they could, would it be sentient? I would say no, because to my thinking, sentience involves the ability to experience—to see, hear, taste, smell, feel pain and other physical sensations, to experience thoughts, memories, and emotions, etc. This you simply cannot program a computer to do. You could program a computer to act like it feels pain, to recoil and say “ouch” when it touches a hot stove, for example, but to actually feel it—such a thing is not in the instruction set of any computer, nor does anyone have the remotest clue how to build such a capability into a machine.

    This is one of the reasons that I believe that the notion that our minds are entirely the result of complex electrochemical activity in the brain is nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of materialists.

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