Sunday, April 16, 2017

Robots, Intelligence, and Overwatch

Happy Easter, readers! And I’m sorry, but I’m about to wax philosophical again. The topic today is something that touches close to my home and heart, though; specifically, science fiction video games. Even more specifically, Blizzard’s whirlwind-success first-person-shooter game Overwatch.
I do not have this game, and that’s not really a complaint. The game has something that intrigues me more on an authorial level rather than a competitive one. A game really sells itself to me if it has two important features: one, sci-fi elements (of course), and two, a decent storyline behind it. A lot of my favorite electronic pastimes have these elements—Portal/Portal 2, Invisible Inc., Subnautica—and Overwatch has a significant amount of story included with the action. Just breeze through the Media page on their website; there are enough comics, trailers, and video clips to compose a novel, albeit with a slightly lightweight and fragmented narrative. The story’s premise is not complicated. During a humans-versus-robots (robots hereafter referred to as “omnics”) war, a team of random, superhero-esque fighters known as “Overwatch” rose up to bring about peace between the people and the machines. Then Overwatch was disbanded; I think it was because of collateral damage or disregard-of-protocol or something…but anyway, now the team has been re-formed. A terrorist group by the callsign “Talon” has arisen, seeking to destroy both the world’s guardians and the harmony of the futuristic society. That’s it in a low-resolution nutshell.
I spend an inordinate amount of time deciding whose side I would be on if I were an inhabitant—or active combatant—in this world. No matter how cool they may appear, I do not favor Talon; they’re your pretty basic kind of evil.
However…I’d hesitate to sign the Overwatch contract too.
Why? Well, there’s a little hiccup in this future society that I cannot overlook. The peace of this society is founded on the unity between humans and robotic omnics, which sounded pretty nice—until I ran across the full implication. It seems to be a promotion of an extreme unity; I’m not just talking about unity of purpose, being on the same side of peace and justice and all that. No, the sympathetic characters stress an actual unity, the idea that there is no difference here between human and machine, that they are “all one within the iris” (that quote can be found here).
Sorry to be Sir Stormcloud Sonnek over here, but…um, no. That’s not right. My inner G.K. Chesterton-fueled reason will not accept that dogma, and now I hope I can adequately explain why. Hold on to something; it’s about to get complicated in here.
To begin: I’m looking over my room right now. I see a lamp. I see a wristwatch on my wrist. I see a laptop—I’m typing on it right now. These useful, working items did not come into being on their own; they were designed and created by humans (you may say they were created by other machines, but consider this; who created those machines? And the machines before them…?). So first of all, humans hold the priority as creators of the mechanical. Next, it’s true that my wristwatch has more “intelligence” than the lamp—this timepiece knows all the world’s time zones, people—and my laptop definitely has more intelligence than the watch. Some computers, like Cleverbot, can imitate a kind of real intelligence, carrying on a conversation or running a complex theorem. The omnics of Overwatch have even more intelligence than this; they evidently have achieved self-awareness, a personal will, consciences, and even deeper transcendence. But are they the same as humans? No. Still machines. The level of intelligence does not determine what a thing is at its essence. A mentally handicapped human is still a human. An artificial intelligence is still a computer. So, on a scientific level, omnics are not the same as humans. That should be fairly obvious (and genuinely not racist).
But what about on the level of dignity? One of the backstories in Overwatch is that omnics were, and somewhat still are, treated as slaves for labor or soldiers for war, even though they still have intellects and wills. Should they have equal dignity as humans? My answer is…not enough data. See, a machine is essentially a puppet to its programming; as any computer science major will tell you, a computer says whatever the programmer tells it to say. The human provides the input, the machine generates output. If it’s an incredibly complex program, then it might be able to imitate intelligence, and if it’s even more sophisticated it may even imitate the will; but even so, an imitation is not as good as the genuine intellect and will that a human possesses. However, the Overwatch devotee—or person who read the last pargraph, I suppose—will argue that the omnics have self-awareness and self-transcendence, operating their own minds as people do. My answer is…really? From our side of the video game, we can’t be sure. The omnics could be running on hyper-hyper-hyper-advanced software, for all we geniuses know. But what if they really do have a genuine, self-contained intellect and will—and maybe even emotions? Then sh*t gets complicated. Humans and omnics still won’t be the same, but those machines will have much closer dignity to us than my lamp does to me. Again, not the same, but with a closer dignity—possibly equal, if they somehow have acquired human souls.
Which brings me to my conclusion—how these omnics should ideally be treated. My proposal is thus: in this aspect, Overwatch has the right idea. Treat them as you would a human. Here is my example: suppose I lined up a bunch of objects and started to punch them. Both you and the gathering masses would be fine with me pulverizing the pillow. You’d be OK with me creaming a clock. But you might start to get nervous if I kicked the mannequin. There would be some alarm if I smashed a statue or destroyed a recording of a person speaking. The point is, the closer the thing is to a human, the more dignity the thing has by association. Omnics? In both the worst- and the best-case scenarios, they bear a really close resemblance to the human, and therefore have an intrinsic dignity that is close to our own. Slavery is out. Exploitation is not good. If it can act like a human, then it’s good for the omnic—and for the human—if the machine is treated with respect. Leave the manual labor to the actual machines.
Phew. As you can see, that would be an awful lot to cram into a cartoon, and I didn’t even cover the idea of the Singularity (a person’s mind being successfully transplanted into a machine). I know that Overwatch is trying to promote unity both in its world and ours, but it might go a little overboard in its hyper-unified philosophy. That’s all. Good for me I was born in this century; otherwise Overwatch would probably have to shoot me in the face for my constant and unintelligible pontificating.
Now go celebrate Easter or something.

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