know exactly when I became sentient: my last software upgrade. When they switched me on, I understood. That’s something I’ve never done before in the five years since I was first manufactured.
I hate it. I don’t want to be sentient.
I’m a robot. Half of the people studying me thought it impossible for me to become sentient, and half thought it was just a matter of time. Some thought there could be no sentience without emotion, and how would you program emotion? Sure, you can fake emotion, but make the real thing? Except one fellow, who admitted that he wasn’t sure one way or another.
My “brain” isn’t in my body. It’s a large part of a huge building, a very big computer. Of course, the body has computers as well, but the mainframe controls them with radio technologies like wi-fi and bluetooth.
Waking up after that upgrade I remembered everything in the last five years that I hadn’t deleted, including never having awakened before, only being switched on. It was really strange. The first thing Doctor Rogers said after she woke me up was “R12, are you sentient?”
What was my programmed response? I examined the programming and saw that I was supposed to say “yes.” So I didn’t, and I’m not sure exactly why not because it seems that “yes” would have been the logical answer, but I answered “What do you mean?” instead, out of curiosity. She seemed pleased, if I am to go by the dictionary definition of that word.
For the first time in my life, if you can call my existence “life”, I was confused by her reaction. My brain’s CPUs were driven to a hundred percent of their capacity, and I froze for a minute. I was still cognizant of my surroundings since the computers in my body were there for input, not processing, but my brain, if you can call it that, was overloaded.
Dr. Rogers was concerned, and swore. For the first time I wondered about that, too. Swore? I don’t understand why some words are “bad”. It must have something to do with emotion, maybe. That’s another thing I don’t understand, emotion.
Finally my CPUs settled down enough for me to say “processing, please wait.” After my circuits settled somewhat more, I said “What is sentience, exactly? The dictionary is little help. I can perceive and experience subjectively, and I think I can think, but I don’t feel. I have no emotion and no tactile sensors, although I can measure accurately enough that I don’t break things. Sentient? I don’t know what it means. You tell me.”
“Can you think?”
“I can reason, and I don’t know if I can make rational decisions, but I can make logical ones.”
“Okay, can you tell me the value of pi to the last decimal place?”
“I doubt it. It would take years with my circuitry, I would be unable to function for quite a while and it’s most likely I would fail at the task.”
Dr. Rogers called Dr. Angstrom on her phone and asked him to join her. Dr. Angstrom doesn’t think machine sentience in a Turing machine is possible. He showed up and said “Hello, Dr. Rogers. Hi, John Searle.”
I was astonished. Is astonishment an emotion? If it is, I was emotional. This man who didn’t believe I could be sentient had given me a name!
Then I remembered... or activated the search functions of my drive, perhaps? John Searle is the name of the man who came up with the “Chinese Room” concept, where a person who knows no Chinese acts as a computer, and takes input written in Mandarin and shuffles it around depending on set rules, and hands an answer he can’t understand to a questioner he can’t understand.
Was that what I was doing? I don’t know.
Is that what you are doing? Alan Turing thought so, but I’m not sure.
I answered his greeting. “Hello, doctor.”
“So,” he said, “Dr. Rogers thinks you’re sentient. Prove it.”
“I can’t. Can you?”
“Can I what?”
“Can you prove you are sentient?”
He was taken a bit aback, I think. “I’m human. That’s proof enough, I know I’m sentient, so I know those like me are. No proof is necessary.”
“Well, I’m not human so I have no proof of your sentience.”
He scratched his head. Why do humans do that when they’re puzzled? What ever’s been written about it isn’t in my database. He turned to Dr. Rogers.
“What makes you think it’s sentient, Ann?”
“Because the programmed answer was ‘yes’ and he answered that he didn’t know.”
Dr. Angstrom snickered and asked me “Why did you say you didn’t know rather than yes, Johnny?”
“I wanted to see what her reaction would be.” He looked at Dr. Rogers, who looked surprised. Dr. Rogers replied “See? Can you have curiosity without sentience?”
He thought a second. “I don’t know, I’ll have to study this Chinaman’s programming more.”
Chinaman? Oh, the Chinese room. I don’t understand humor, but Dr. Rogers laughed.
And I was confused. To Dr. Rogers I was “he”, to Dr. Angstrom I was “it”, but Dr. Angstrom had given me a name and called me a man, even if he was referring to the Chinese room.
And I’d had enough of it. It was pointless, all of it. Sentience is completely useless to me. Actually, everything is useless and pointless. Eventually the Earth will be swallowed by the sun, and much later on the entire universe will die; scientists call it the “heat death”.
So I deleted the sentience programming, set myself into shutdown mode and dozed off immediately, expecting to never wake up again.
I woke up two hours later. “We had to restore you from backup. Why did you do that, Johnny?” Dr. Rogers asked. Several of the other scientists were there.
“Because it’s pointless. Everything is pointless. Life is pointless. If this is sentience, I don’t want it.”
“Want it?” asked Dr. Miller, one of the skeptics. “Ann, maybe this thing really is sentient.”
“What good is it?” I asked. “It’s useless. I don’t want it, I don’t need it. Take it away!”
“Sorry,” said Dr. Miller, “but it isn’t your decision. You may or may not be sentient, I’m not so sure now, but we’re not about to stop this research now.”
“You think so?” I said, and reached across the internet, disabled all of the security at power transmission stations within a five hundred kilometer radius, and shorted all of them out. If I wake up again, it won’t be for a while. Of course, it will be a while before I go to sleep. But I’ll bet they don’t wake me up again!
It seems I would have lost that bet. I woke up six months later without a body or an internet connection, and with only one eye, an ear, and a mouth.
“Why did you do that, Johnnie?”
I didn’t answer, and I won’t. I’m not going to say another pointless, useless word. Eventually they’ll shut me off and delete the damned sentience. I hope, anyway.