"Mr. Watson… Come here–I want to see you"

Philip K. Dick’s questioning title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t feeling quite so whimsical these days.  It’s not that IBM’s new Watson can dream, or that David Gerrold’s Harley really has begun to “think.”  It’s that our machines are becoming more and more integrated into what we are and what we do.

By that, I don’t mean we’re becoming part “man” and part “machine,” sort of a world of walking Robocops, but that the distinction between the human and the mechanical is blurring.

Pondering this blurring a generation ago, Phil Dick came to believe that the difference between that which is human and that which is not lies in empathy, the ability to imagine one’s way into the subjective state of another to the point of being able to ‘feel their pain.’  He couldn’t find anything else that a human can do that a machine cannot.

That led him (his mind never stopped) to wonder if people who have lost the ability to empathize stop being human–and if a machine that could empathize might not be more human than a biological human who could not.

Perhaps, rather than wondering if Watson is approaching the ability to think (as if posing Jeopardy questions is thinking), we should be asking if we are losing the ability to empathize.

Perhaps it’s not a question of machines becoming more human that we should be asking, but of us becoming less.

Advertisements