Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Interview with Caprica's science advisor Malcolm MacIver

ScriptPhD.com has a really good interview with Malcolm MacIver, Caprica's technical script consultant, who sheds some light on the U-87 and the MCP. Snippets below, for the complete article click here.

MM: (...) For episode 2, “Rebirth,” the show needed some explanation for why the metacognitive processor was only working in one robot. The real reason, as we know, is that only one had Zoe in it; but the roboticists were being pressed by Daniel Graystone as to why it wasn’t working in others. The idea that I gave them, which they used, was that it was because this particular metacognitive processor had distributed its control to peripheral subunits. Because of this, it had become tied to one particular robot. It’s an idea straight out of contemporary neuroscience and efforts to emulate this in robotics.

SPhD: To me, one of the most fascinating directions of the show is the idea that the first Cylon prototype was born of blood, in this case Zoe Graystone, and because of that, carries sentient emotions and thoughts. What is the fine line between a very smart, capable robot and an actual being?

MM: To vastly oversimplify things, you can imagine a gradation in “being” from a rock to a fully sentient self-aware entity. Some of the differentiators between the rock and you include things like the impact of others on how you think about yourself. For example, categorizing a rock as a particular kind of rock has no effect on the constitution of the rock. This isn’t so for self-aware creatures: once a person is labeled a child abuser, it actually affects the constitution of the person so labeled. People treat child abusers differently from non-child abusers. People who are categorized in this way suddenly see themselves differently; and those who were victims do so as well. The philosopher Ian Hacking, who I studied with during my Masters in Philosophy at the University of Toronto, called this the difference between “Human Kinds” and “Natural Kinds.” Another differentiator is that, for what you refer to as an “actual being,” there is a sense of self-interest in continued survival. Because of this, such a being is susceptible to being harmed, and may also therefore have what an ethicist would call “moral worthiness.” Moral worthiness in turn imposes certain obligations in regard to ethical treatment. For example, returning to the rock, we wouldn’t say we harm a rock when we explode it with dynamite, and we wouldn’t accuse the person who did the blowing up of unethical behavior (certain stripes of environmentalism would differ on this point). Unlike a rock, all animals exhibit an interest in self-preservation.

A very smart and capable robot can be imagined which is not affected by how it is categorized by others, and does not have an interest in self-preservation. So, it would fall short of at least those criteria for full-on “being.” But, there’s a lot more that can be said here, of course.

SPhD: What aspect of the Cylon machine and their story, which is now at the heart of Caprica, do you find the most captivating, either as a viewer or a robotics engineer?

MM: The scenario of our inventions eventually becoming so complex that they begin to have an interest in self preservation, and thus can be harmed (and so may start to be candidates for ethical treatment), is one I’ve thought a lot about in the past. It’s a key theme of the show, too. That’s one aspect that fascinates me about the show. The other is the play between the different kinds of being that Zoe has—from avatar-in-a-robot, to avatar-in-virtual reality, to “really real.” It’s a fun fugue on the varieties of being that raises good questions about the nature of existence and mortality, among others.

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