Testing for Humanity

April 25, 2008

Because of their strong desire to live longer than their ancestors, people are progressively losing their propensity for taking risks. It’s a textbook evolutionary process; heavy risk takers die young, leaving far fewer descendants than their more cautious brethren so that, in the course of time, we all degenerate into homebodies who rarely venture out for fear of an accident.

But there is another interesting aspect to this tendency. We are so near to creating androids on a commercial basis that within a decade they will move among us, virtually undetectable from ourselves, except that their clearly enhanced acceptance of risk should make them vulnerable; merely watching them cross a busy street should do the trick. I say “should,” but obviously an intelligent android, intent on eventually replacing humans altogether, will take the greatest possible care not to be unmasked before that great day, by demonstrating the same reluctance to being destroyed as we do.

So how are we to detect and weed out such imposters before they, and not we, become masters of the cosmos?

Well, that might be easier than you think. Androids are, by definition, not living beings, in the sense that they cannot reproduce biologically, even though they might be able to manufacture identical copies of themselves by the million in android-operated factories.

All we have to do is collect a flake of android skin, or even a single hair, and subject it to the usual tests for sentient life: the presence of the nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, arranged in their proper combinations and in a right-handed helix.

Now, I am not saying that a clever android design could not pass this test, but if it does, we have only to follow down the line of amino acid, protein and, finally, reproductive capability. If conjugation is successful, we have a human. Otherwise, whatever we have must be hustled off immediately to the disposal facility before it can fool anyone else.

But you know, people sometimes ask me, “What’s the beef?” Meaning that if we have no problem with the numerous improvements introduced in our voyage from amoeba to rocket scientist (though, as a scientist, I must insist that these are only engineers and not genuine scientists), what is so wrong in accepting a sea change from human to nonhuman, providing the latter can do pretty well anything the former can? Well, the answer lies right there in “pretty well.” Need I expand on that?

It has been suggested that an exceedingly smart android couple might even simulate between them an artificial zygote, near enough to the real thing to deceive even the experts. But I place this objection in the same class as the early Christians arguing as to whether Jesus was actually the son of God, or merely partook of the nature of godhood. Such nitpicking is intended only to display the intellectual power of the debaters, and has no place in a serious test for humanity.

 

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