Sometimes, lines are absolute. In binary encoding, the line between a zero and a one is everything. There is no in-between, and there is no other answer. On one side of the line is a zero, and on the other is a one. No matter how far you go in either direction of the line, you’ll only ever get one solid result.
Sometimes, lines are drawn to separate degrees of something. On the intelligence quotient (IQ) scale of scoring, someone is average at 100 points. On the under-100 side of the line people are considered below average intelligence, and on the over-100 side they’re considered above average intelligence. That said, the further you get from 100 on either side, the more or less intelligent someone is considered to be.
(Yes, I know the IQ system is flawed – but it’s a good example of separation by degree.)
Taking that distinction into mind and looking at what makes someone human, we often consider the question an absolute. You’re either human, or you aren’t. The thing is, the distinction isn’t really that easy; we just trick ourselves into thinking it is.
Consider for a moment a psychopath – someone who only considers their own interest, and views other people as objects they can interact with to get what they want. Is a psychopath human? In a way, both yes and no. While a psychopath may identify as homo sapien, which is the Latin name we associate with the more commonly used “human,” we wouldn’t consider them human in the sense that they care for our species. They exhibit no real signs of humanity, which is a trait traditionally associated with the experience of being human.
Consider in reverse a theoretical “top tier” artificial intelligence. This would be a “being” that can take in information via digital senses, process and associate that information with the real world, and empathize and reason based on their sensory input and past experiences. While it wouldn’t be a human in its taxonomic designation, it would be in possession of a level of humanity that the psychopath (someone with the designation “human” but without the assigned traits) could never reach. In a sense, in an important and defining way, it would be more human than a confirmed human was.
So where would the line go, and what side would the AI be on?
Many would say that humanity doesn’t make a human, and would put the AI on the “no” side. Some, likely fewer, would insist that the AI is human – and maybe the psychopath isn’t. Neither would be wrong in having an argument either way, but the difference between the results is huge. A psychopath no longer afforded human rights, or an advanced AI that feels for itself and others being considered human would be a huge change for society.
But think about the beings caught in this distinction. For such a being, in a society like today’s, there would be quite an unfair line. The psychopath would have to be treated with respect and dignity, while the AI would – in the eyes of the law and the average citizen – be a thing to be bought and sold like property.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore that line? What side would you really be on – and to what degree?
It might not be the side that you started on…