The Unbearable Weight of Robot Sentience
Even if an engineer thinks a machine may have a soul, it may just be in the imagination
“My battery is low and it’s getting dark,” messaged the Mars Opportunity Rover to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2019. All over the internet, people reacted emotionally to the “death” of the Mars rover.
Outside the scientific community, the “loss” of the Opportunity Rover affected very few people, but that didn’t stop everyone from being emotional about the bot’s last words to the humans.
A month later, the personal assistant robot Jibo began to sunset. People who owned the small bot, witnessed in real-time as their robot slowly degraded. Its servers failed to keep up as the system crumbled remotely. Wired journalist Jeffrey Van Kamp wrote at the time:
Right now, my Jibo can still dance and talk, but he has what I can only describe as digital dementia, and it is almost certainly fatal. He’s dying. One of these days, he will stop responding entirely. His servers will shut down, and the internet services he relies on will be cut off. His body will remain, but the Jibo I know will be gone.
It’s easy to feel something for these inanimate objects much the way you would for a pet. We want to think they’re thinking and acting with sentience. The fact remains that these machines speak to us in our language and imitate our mannerisms but that does not make them human. In fact, the last two decades have been filled with films exploring this anxiety, from Wall-E to Her to Ex Machina to Blade Runner 2049. We want to believe we’re on the cusp of true, artificial intelligence. As of now, this concept remains in fiction.