Sentient synthetic systen and the consciousness byproduct as examined in mindscan and blade runner
Synthetic Sentient Systems and the Consciousne s s
As Examined in Mindscan and Blade Runner
Dr. Jean Braithwait
The University of Texas - Pan American
Master of Fines Arts Creative Writing
May 2, 2010
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Synthetic Sentient Systems and the Consciousne s s
As Examined in Mindscan and Blade Runner
“It will not be a neutral or malevolent force that will do us in, but one
whose only motivation is to improve us.” – Sherwin Nuland, clinical
profess or of surgery at Yale University’ s School of Medicine , and author of
“How We Die”
There are three criteria for sentience . A sentient being must pos s e s s
self- awarenes s , intelligence , and consciou sne s s . To be human you must
be conscious . To be consciou s , “you must be a single, integrated entity
with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states ” that derives meaning
from cross - linked images that form greater levels of complexity and
memories . (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2009, pg. 16 ) From such
integrated thinking, “Consciousness emerges from total behavioral and
neurological repertoire – Just as the face in the painting emerges from the
whole array of colored patches.” (Scruton, 2005, pg. 76)
Those “color patches” of consciou sne s s are made up of memories ,
dreams , colors , pain, problems and other intricate sens e s . They are central
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to the ess ence of personhood as defined by degrees of self- awarenes s .
This complex characterization of consciou sne s s is vital to the plot of
Mindscan, by Robert Sawyer, and Ridley Scott’ s movie Blade Runner. In
both science fiction novel and movie , the characters must defend , and
come to terms with what it means to be human- like as determined by their
sentient states of consciousne s s and issues of death and dying .
Replicant’ s weren’ t suppose to have feelings. Neither were Blade
Runners. What the hell was happening to me? Leon’ s pictures had
to be a phony as Rachael’ s. I didn’ t know why a replicant would
collect photos. Maybe they were like Rachael. They needed
memories. – Deckard, Blade Runner
To be sentient is to be aware, to be responsive to or conscious of
impressions, to be finely sensitive in perception or feeling. (Merriam Webster’ s
College Dictionary) Whether consciousne s s can arise in a complex , synthetic
machine is a question that has long fascinated scientists and science
Neuroscientist , Giulio Tononi from the University of Wisconsin -
Madison , developed the integrated information theory (IIT). It is based upon
two tenants of thought. First, conscious states are highly differentiated;
they are information rich. Second , this information is highly integrated. IIT
uses mathematics to calculate how much integrated information an entity
pos s e s s e s and thus , its level of consciousne s s .
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The IIT equation looks impressive , but it means little to someone
who is not a neuroscientist . Yet, it propose s to quantify levels of
consciou sne s s , and perhaps even evaluate the ess ence of personhood .
If Tononi’ s equation for Φ proves to plumb the hitherto ineffable—
consciousness itself— it would validate the ancient Pythagorean
belief that “ number is the ruler of forms and ideas and the cause of
gods and demons.” (Koch, pg. 17 )
But consciou sne s s cannot be easily reduced to numbers . It has yet
to be observed and does not produce empirical data. (Scruton, pg. 72) As a
counterpart to the IIT formula, science fiction offers a more readily
understandable and palpable illustration of awakened consciousne s s .
Through parables that explore the issues of what it means to be human
using futuristic scenarios , science fiction writers can go where no science
has managed to penetrate, by creating extremely sophisticated androids or
replicants to explore the complicated issues surrounding consciousne s s .
Mindscan and Blade Runner explore the subject of sentient androids
in the greater context of inalienable rights . For example , consider a silicon -
based android (replicants or mindscans ) that produces exactly the same
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thoughts and behaviors that a carbon life form (humans) produces . Will
that silicon system be conscious in the same way that a person would be ?
If so , does that silicon system ascend in status , because of its
sophisticated self- learning and self- aware artificial intelligence , becoming a
“sentient being” afforded rights equivalent to our own ?
Is this larger proposition - sentient machines having equal rights
because they are sentient - disturbing because such a proposition holds
that a man-made (android) life form be promoted to the status and
equivalency of a God-made (human) life form ? Such a proposition
ultimately questions what it is to be human and what is “personhood” . It
ultimately places the creator (man) on equal terms to the created (synthetic
sentient system) and pos sibly, subjugating man to the android as the
android develops superior intelligence and super- human strength .
By contrast, if sentient systems are refused rights to protect them
from abuses , exploitation, and enslavement , neglect of a sentient being ’ s
rights would have future societies condoning such unjust institutions .
The explication of this proposition was examined in another popular
science fiction television program, Star Trek: The Next Generation. “The
Measure of a Man” was a second - seas on episode broadcasted in 1989. In
this episode , Data’ s sentience is put on trial. Captain Picard must defend
Data as a sentient being worthy of the same protections and rights afforded
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other shipmates on the Voyager. He makes the case that all humans are
created by their parents , but that they are not the property of their parents .
Picard argues that Data was made by Dr. Noonien Soong , but that he is
neither the property of Dr. Soong nor Starfleet. As a sentient being , Data
has free will and the choice to subject himself to disas s embly if he
chooses . Picard points out that if the court ruled against Data’ s right to
choos e , it would be tantamount to sanctioning slavery.
Roy: Quite an experience to live in fear isn’ t it? That’ s what it is to be a
slave. (escaped android in Blade Runner)
For Roy, he is expres sing what it is like to feel fear as a slave , to live
in fear of dying not dissimilar to that of a human being , and he must face
the termination of his life. In that statement, he is defining his experience of
dying and demonstrating his state “personhood” . This is a far greater
sense of awarenes s than merely explaining his surroundings and his
situation as a fact. He is self- aware. He is much more than the
philosophical “zombie” that describes a person who appears to be awake
and intelligent, but does not exhibit consciou sne s s or self- awarenes s .
Profess or Caleb Poe : … a zombie is conscious in that it is
responsive to its environment – but that’ s all. True consciousness –
… is what we really mean when we talk about personhood –
recognizes that there is something that it is like to be aware.
(Mindscan pg. 235)
If there are consciou s states differentiated by a sens e of knowing or
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awarenes s exhibited by one who is conscious , what is the “thinking” or
“awarenes s” that must exist that separates the zombie state from the
awakened state ? To learn to think, a machine needs to “ have a chance of
finding things out for itself. (Raley, pg. 81 )
People interchange the words “awarenes s” or “thinking” to describe
proces s e s that involve consciou sne s s , understanding , and creativity and
the ability to draw inference from one ’ s experiences , perceptions and
accumulated memories . But what does it mean to be conscious?
Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other feature of our
world, since it is the route by which anything at all becomes familiar.
But this is what makes consciousness so hard to pinpoint. Look for
it wherever you like, you encounter only its objects – a face, a dream,
a memory, a color, a pain, a melody, a problem, but nowhere the
consciousness that shines on them. Trying to grasp it is like trying to
observe your own observing, as though you were to look with your
own eyes at your own eyes without using a mirror. Not surprisingly,
therefore, the thought of consciousness gives rise to peculiar
metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay with images of the soul,
the mind, the self, the “ subject of consciousness,” the inner entity
that thinks and sees and feels and that is the real me inside.
(Scruton, pg. 72)
Computer scientist Stevan Harnad, of the University of Southampton
in England, believes for computers to begin to understand they would have
to grasp abstractions and the context of the abstractions by first learning
how they relate to the real, outside world. David Hume, author of “Treatise
of Human Nature” written in 1978, sugge sted that a person is “a bundle or
collection of different perceptions . ” Thus , a sentient machine must
understand how it relates to its reality through its subjective perceptions to
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create its own ideas about its reality.
Roy: We’ re not computers Sebastian, we’ re physical.
Pris: I think, Sebastian, therefore I am. (Blade Runner)
Rene Descartes ’ axiom “Cognito ergo sum” utilized by Pris in her
declaration that she believes she exists because she is aware that she
does , is ironic. She is an escaped replicant (android), created as a pleasure
slave who is afforded no inalienable rights by her creators and who is
destined to die because her “coding sequence cannot be revised once it’ s
been established” that shortens the replicant’ s lifespan . Yet, she defends
her personhood on the grounds that she is aware of herself, and thus has a
right to life.
Simultaneously , Roy reminds Sebastian that replicants aren’t
glorified computers . They are much much more than that.
Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And
you have burned so very very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You’ re the
prodigal son. You’ re quite a prize!
Could we extend the concept of consciousne s s to include something
more ? Does the argument for awarenes s shape itself around an ineffable
idea of personhood and that personhood pos s e s s e s a soul? To begin to go
down that rabbit hole, there must be established at least two convictions .
First, one must believe that a soul exists and is in some way a part of
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personhood , and second , she must believe that the soul is the definable
quality the separates the zombie from the self- aware person .
Deshawn , (attorney for the plaintiff, Karen Bes sarian in
Mindscan):“You yourself said it was significant that a biological
person has a soul and an upload does not. Indeed, you used the
language of philosophy to tell us that the Karen Bessarian in this
courtroom must be soulless – a condition you described as being a
But what creates the soul and where does it exist within a person ?
Science has yet to find the answers to these questions because it has yet
to find consciou sne s s . If science can not tell us where the soul or
consciou sne s s resides , perhaps the better question would be, “Is it
content – the degree of subjective perception that forms self- awarenes s ,
rather than construction – the biological material that make the organism ,
that should be examined when qualifying the status of sentient synthetic
systems ? ”
If it walks , talks, thinks , acts , and is aware of itself like a human, then
it should it be recognized as a human equivalent ?
“If identity is a matter of psychological variables x, y, and z,
transferring x, y, and z to a different vessel should make that vessel have
the same identity.” (Katz, pg. 151) In this equation , Katz asserts that if there is
a soul then the soul attaches to a body, one at a time, and if it is dislodged ,
it will transfer itself in whole to its new body . (Katz, pg. 151) The very same
assertion is made by Deshawn for Karen Bessarian in Mindscan.
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Deshawn : I have a dream that my four little children will one day live
in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character… That is what should count!
The content of one’ s character. And, as we have shown, the content
of the plaintiff’ s character is identical to that of the biological
original…There’ s a concept in the law known as scienter – it refers
to the knowledge that a person possesses, the awareness. This
Karen Bessarian has the knowledge of the original; she is the same
person… More than that, she has the same feelings, the same hopes,
the same aspirations, the same creativity, and the same desires as
she always did.
Deshawn : You concede that your philosophical notion of
consciousness superimposed on the zombie, and the religious
notion of the soul superimposed on the biological body, are
essentially the same thing?
Poe : Yes.
Deshawn : I mean, the soul doesn’ t change upon death. It still has
volition, doesn’ t it? Your soul hasn’ t become an automaton, has it?
It hasn’ t become a zombie?
Poe : No.
Deshawn : Even if souls are only created by God, and can’ t be
duplicated by any mortal process, isn’ t it still possible that Ms.
Bessarian’ s soul now resides n this artificial body – making her no
more a zombie than the original was before it passed away?
Poe : Yes.
Though this exchange emphasizes a pointed argument worth
considering , it relevancy is based upon a specious idea that a soul exist,
for which no scientific evidence has ever been substantiated. A
substitution may be better suited for our purpose s here.
Qualia, a term used in philosophy to describe the subjective quality
of conscious experience , in ess ence may be thought to be the same as a
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general definition of qualia, a person is known to have it if the person
experiences “the ‘ what it is like’ character of mental states. The way it feels
to have mental states such as pain, seeing red, smelling a rose, etc.”
(Chalmers , pg 100)
In Thomas Nagel’ s seminal work on the experience of subjectivity in
“What Is It Like to Be a Bat ? ” he wants to know if it is pos sible humans
know what it is like to be a bat if humans cannot imagine what it is like to
be a bat. It is the subjectivity of the experience that eludes him and is the
subject of his paper. He doesn ’ t want to know what’ s it like for him to be a
bat. He wants to know objectively what it is subjectively to know what it is
like to be a bat. This raises questions about artificial intelligence having the
ability to know what it is “like” to be human to the extent that they can be
considered similar to a human in ways of consciou sne s s .
Karen Bessarian (Mindscan) and Roy Batty (Blade Runner) both
know what is like to be human. Karen’ s upload was once human. By
Nagel’ s assertion , she would most certainly know the human experience
having been one . Roy knows of the human condition, to face death and his
own mortality. Both demonstrate striking “likenes s” to humans , to
personhood , and to the sense of “me, myself and I”. But, do they have to
experience perfect human likenes s to be able to perceive a sense of “I”?
By means of meme-exchange media such as language and
gestures, we can experience what it is like to be or do X. It’ s never
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genuine, but then what is genuine knowledge of what it is to be X?
We don’ t even quite know what it was like to be ourselves ten years
ago. Only by rereading diaries can we tell – and then, only by
projection! It is still vicarious. Worse yet, we often don’ t even know
how we could possibly have done what we did yesterday. And,
when you come right down to it, it’ s not clear just what it is like to
be me, right now. – Douglas Hofstadter, The Mind’ s I, 1981, pg. 413
In Mindscan, Karen Bes sarian must defend that her upload is the real
Karen and that her “experiences” and memories are her own just
transferred. Yet, in the paragraph above there cannot exist the same
person over time because the person changes . If the self is, at its core, a
psychological notion, the question then becomes what particular
psychological aspects are neces s ary for the construction of self. Is this
construction of self ultimately that “feeling” experienced in qualia and
consciou sne s s found through self- awarenes s ? Feeling is a mark of
consciou sne s s only if we interpret “feeling” as “awarenes s” . But what is it
to be aware of something ?
Scientists would argue that if consciousne s s is real it must be part of
the real world - the world of space and time, which we observe with our
sense s and explain by scientific experimentation and evidence . “The
subject (consciousness) is in principle unobservable to science, not
because it exists in another realm, but because it is not part of the
empirical world. It lies on the edge of things, like a horizon.” (Scruton, pg. 75)
“I do, therefore I think I am.” (Scruton, pg. 75) Perhaps , Descartes had it
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backwards . Perhaps , we believe we have consciousne s s because we live
first on the backs of our zombies . We look over the shoulders of our
consciou s unawakened selves and determine we must exist. That we
perform, experience , and live out our lives accumulating memories along
the way may make us feel some pressing need to categorize , define , and
justify our existence in the greater context of the world we live in, but to
Profess or Caleb Poe : I contend that all human beings are first and
foremost zombies, but with the added element of consciousness
essentially along as a passenger. Let me make the distinction clear:
a zombie is conscious in that it is responsive to its environment –
but that’ s all. True consciousness – … is what we really mean when
we talk about personhood – recognizes that there is something that
it is like to be aware. (pg.235)
Scruton argues that “consciousness and self-consciousness are
holistic properties, which emerge from the totality of a creature’ s
physiognomy and behavior.” He contends , and the body of scientific
literature supports , that consciousne s s does not exist because it cannot be
located , studied , or empirically quantified. Similar arguments are made
regarding the existence of God. It is perhaps not surprising that when
references are made about the soul it is directly linked to God and the
afterlife. To declare that there exists no soul is terrifying for many people .
And yet, how could it be otherwise ?
IF the proposition that consciou sne s s is the side-effect of
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physiological reactions in an organism , AND it takes a backseat to the
organism’ s zombie forever looking over its shoulder, AND if self- awarenes s
only becomes animated post the initial experience after the zombie has
already experienced it, THAN consciou sne s s becomes a byproduct! It is no
longer tethered to a soul. This has profound implications of the synthetic
sentient beings ’ rights of Karen Bes sarian in Mindscan and those of the
replicants in Blade Runner. In both stories , the divine creator argument, if
supplanted by the byproduct theory, does not uphold the assertion that
there is a difference between man- made and God- mad sentient beings .
Neither human nor animal nor AI system would be excluded based
upon their lack of a soul . Furthermore, it has been argued by Hofstadter
that even the simplest computers have a point of view relative to their
perspective say of a given set of coordinates that constitutes an “I”
perspective . Ultimately, it is the level of complexity associated with
“awarenes s” that defines sentience within an organism ; it is the
organism ’ s contents not its construction that determines personhood that
warrants the same rights , protections and considerations that humans
enjoy. Consciousne s s in all its forms (self-awarenes s , soul , sentience ) is a
byproduct and not a spiritually conceived state of being handed down by a
divine creator. It is generated in the organism after the point of creation .
Through the fictional character of Roy Batty, it is clear consciou sne s s in an
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android is not devoid of compas sion , empathy, passion or love .
Roy: I’ ve seen things you people wouldn’ t believe… All those
moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.
Deckard: I don’ t know why he (Roy) saved my life. Maybe in those
last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just
his life, anybody’ s life, my life. All he’ d wanted were the same
answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I
going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch
Blade Runner script, http://www.trussel . com / bladerunner.htm
Chalmers , David, “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience” , Scientific
2002, pg. 90-100
Hofstadter, Douglas r., and Dennet, Daniel C., The Mind’ s I: Fantasies and
on Self and Soul, Basic Books , Inc. Publishing , New York, 1981
Katz, Bruce F., Neuroengineering the Future: Virtual Minds and the
Immortality, Infinity Science Press , Hingham, Massachusetts , 2008
Koch, Christof, “A Theory of Consciousne s s” , Scientific American Mind,
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2009, pg. 16-19
Raley, Yvonne , “Electric Thoughts ? ” , Scientific American Mind, April/May
Sawyer, Robert J., Mindscan, Tom Doherty Associates , LLC, New York,
Schneider, Susan , Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to
Superintelligence, A John Wiley & Sons Publication , United
Kingdom , 2009
Scruton, Roger, “The Unobserverable Mind”, MITTechnology Review, Vol.
Number 2, February 2005, pg. 72-76
Snodgrass , Melinda, “The Measure of a Man”, Star Trek: The Next
Generation, second -
seas on , 1989
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