On Being Human

Two competing strands of thought in the media today on what it means to be human. The first, and more important (for now), concerns the creation of human embryos for the explicit purpose of experimentation. My thought is that God is the creator any time a mixture of male and female DNA combine to form a new person. Or, as some would put it, a “potential” person. It depends, doesn’t it, on what one means by a “person.”

Charles Krauthammer’s column today reminds us that there is some clarity to be had in the stem cell-cloning-embryo debate. He writes

… I deplore the step that proponents of such research are already demanding: research cloning, i.e., creating special embryos entirely for the purpose of using them for their parts.

This is crossing a critical moral red line. We may honorably disagree about the moral dignity due a tiny human embryo. But we must establish some barrier to the most wanton, reckless and hubristic exploitation of the human embryo for our own purposes.

The line is easy to find: You do not create a human embryo to be a means to some other end. (emphasis added)

This is just so. A human embryo, in different language, has a God-given essence that we should not presume to destroy. What makes Dr. Krauthammer’s position striking is that he is a paraplegic himself, so one might assume that his self-interest would be to maximize all forms of research that might alleviate his condition.

From the sublime of human creation (and destruction), we go to what, for now, looks to be an absurdist development in Japan. A story in today’s Washington Post, “Humanoids With Attitude — Japan Embraces New Generation of Robots.” We are told the story of Saya, a robotic receptionist who looks almost human:

“I almost feel like she’s a real person,” said Kobayashi, an associate professor at the Tokyo University of Science and Saya’s inventor. Having worked at the university for almost two years now, she’s an old hand at her job. “She has a temper . . . and she sometimes makes mistakes, especially when she has low energy,” the professor said.

Ah, anthromorphism at its finest. The article reminds us that Japan has a much higher tolerance than we in the West for machines that perform tasks previously reserved for humans. Perhaps too high.

There isn’t much of an “I, Robot” sense of intelligent, “ensouled” machines…yet. These robots in Japan are fairly primitive in comparison with the robots of “I, Robot”, or of the Terminator series. Nontheless, there’s an unsettling element here, and we need to be mindful of crossing a line in the future.

What line? The Turing test, perhaps, is one marker. Another would be when the reasonable person is not able to distinguish between a human and a robot. At that point, I’d start to get nervous, as utility theory may become all too real, and applied to humans and machines alike. That is, if a human, for reasons of disability, can not perform as well as a robot in basic, everyday tasks, it might become all that easier to kill that person. Just like turning off a switch in a defective machine…

We are not there yet. I would hope that we give every bit as much thought to the ethics of robotic intelligence as we are now starting to do with cloning.

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