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Through the Evolving Door

Adam, Darwin and Androids

by FARZANA VERSEY

Science has a problem with morality, but will create a robot with a conscience. Is there a difference between insecure theism and insecure science? Neither accepts an element of doubt – doubting of its completeness in isolation to all else.

One can accept such righteousness from religion, but why would a man of science who discusses ‘intelligent design’, the belief that life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone, be sacked from his job at NASA? David Coppedge has taken the organisation where he was part of the “team lead” exploring Saturn and its moons to court. They say he was “pushing religion”. This is distressing even for those of us who are not theists. Scientific inquiry cannot live in a bubble, and ignore that many more people pray to some god or the other rather than to test tubes.

Such a stand reeks of arrogance, besides being as irrational as it considers faith to be. Was it necessary for Coppedge to treat Darwin as god to be able to pursue his scientific mission? In an interview to Creation Journal in 2005, Michael Tigges, a Senior Aerospace Engineer at NASA, and a practising Christian, had made a fine distinction between operational science and evolutionary theories:

“By operational science, I mean to say science that deals with the outcome of repeatable scientific experiments. For example, if I design a trajectory that returns men from the moon using the Earth’s atmosphere as a braking mechanism, then this approach can be simulated and tested and verified regardless of my “belief” in the age of the Earth or the mechanism of creation of life on this planet. If you carry this train of thought through, there is very little operational science that is affected by the creation v. evolution dispute. Regardless of a decision in this matter, computers still operate, stars and planets maintain their orbits, and planes and rockets still fly.”

Around the time that the Coppedge case came into focus, by sheer coincidence, science had decoded a way to point out longevity. With one blood test, you are armed with such amazing information that “measures the length of a person’s telomeres, which are the pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes. As cells keep dividing with age, the telomeres get shorter and shorter.” Jerry Shay, professor and vice chairman of cell biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, played safe by stating that “although the test is an indicator of biological age and is possibly a factor in determining life span, it cannot definitively predict how long a person will live”.

Like religion, science uses obfuscation. It is not about how old you will live to be, but how old you look. At $700 a prick, this caters to vanity as much as it does to posterity that mortality will allow for. These are tantalising areas, and the human spirit thrives on hope. It is not much different from a cosmetic makeover, or even an astrological prediction.  Shay admits: “This is likely to spur a whole bunch of snake oil.” Worse, it would make insurance companies the beneficiaries of prior intimation of life and death.

***

Science has often intruded into abstract human concepts as well as emotions. To the extent that these can be medically comprehended, it makes sense. However, is there any reasonable basis to treat racism with a pill? There are psychological dimensions to it, but how would it address the social dynamics? The suggestion that a drug for anxiety and panic, Propranolol, can be an answer has serious implications. If racism is based on such fears, then it transforms an attitude into an illness, taking no account of the malice and mayhem it causes. The world is not an asylum, and racists consider what they are doing as normal and, more importantly, as a right to superiority.

Experimental psychologist Dr Sylvia Terbeck said: “Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality. Given the key role that such implicit attitudes appear to play in discrimination against other ethnic groups, and the widespread use of propranolol for medical purposes, our findings are also of considerable ethical interest.”

Can values be measured? And how free is the thinking when they have to work within the parameters of what is before them and not beyond? Where is the space for individualism? This is rather intriguing. And just when humans are losing track of their consciences, Spain designed the world’s first robot with a ‘conscience’. Unlike other androids that are programmed to act in specific ways, AlSoy-1 is adaptable. It was conceived to provide company to the user, but its main objective is simulate the human that “senses, has emotions and makes decisions”. With the weight of a newborn, the robot “is almost a living being. It has the same activity as a living being, it has its own autonomy and conscience”, said Diego Garcia, one of its creators. It also has a series of “basic needs, like nourishment and security, and other more advanced ones, like love, recognition, freedom and, above all, enjoying itself and getting along well”.

The whole idea behind robotics has been to assist humankind in its endeavour to learn from and improve upon existing material. Does the idea of an independent robot really serve the purpose? It is said that if two of these androids were placed in different environments they would take on the characteristics of the two places. Therefore, are they capable of taking decisions or are they being subjected to decisions already adapted within the given environs they have been placed in?

***

What has adaptability got to do with the conscience? The conscience is not based on outside factors. It is an area of light in the darkness, a soul-seeking moment, a clarity that comes from a value system that has been ingrained but is often forgotten. The conscience, when it does rise to the occasion, is not independent of the motives that gave it birth. It is a product of a certain frame of reference and may differ in individuals because of cultural, intellectual and personal factors.

Will the robot pick up those signals that are invisible or will it assume them to be ‘conscience’ signals when they could just be a bunch of moralistic ideas that are thrust upon us in everyday life? Having acquired this conscience, what exactly will the robot do? Is it supposed to live its mechanical life with ethics or to show us the mirror? If it is the latter, then the mirror has been cracked several times by our automated behaviour.

Why imbue an android with perception skills when ways of seeing are prisms? These experiments dehumanise the human. It is like the creator becoming the created.

Creationism or whatever word is employed, need not be equated with religion. Science too deals with the intangible. All hypotheses are based on possibilities; that the possibility is not god does not make a difference to the idea of belief in exploring it. Many scientific discoveries have been born of serendipitous moments, from apples to bathtubs. The scientist is, therefore, not always a rationalist. As regards unquestioning faith in a religion, how many of us question gravity or relativity or the speed of light? These do not affect us in real terms, so we take them for granted. Believers do the same with god.

Faith makes no claims to logic. In fact, it could well be a Pavlovian response. If we are spoonfed by scriptures, then it is not much different with science. The religious evangelist sells us the idea of light; the scientific evangelist markets the discovery of the light bulb. Genesis, anyone? For a curious mind, both can be imagined even in a tunnel.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.in/