Sa-yo-na-ra

Last week my son Ken and I went to see a play at the Faculty. This is the first time I took my son to a drama performance. The play was an unusual one in that there was a robot acting as one of the main characters. Yes a real robot.

The title of the play was “Sa-yo-na-ra” which is Japanese for “good-bye” and it is a story of a conversation between a young girl who is suffering from a terminal illness and an android robot. The show was sponsored by the Japan Foundation and there is a news story here. The robot was designed in the play to talk and interact verbally with humans, especially those who suffer from these illnesses. Presumably these patients need someone to talk to and to cheer them up, so a robot was designed for this purpose. (As to the reason why a human being was not needed to talk to the patients, I don’t know. Perhaps a robot is a better talker?)

So the play centers around these two characters. The android, who I learned later was named “Geminoid” because she was purposely built as an exact replica of an existing woman, knows a lot of poetry in her memory and can recite any of them on command. The suffering girl asks the robot to recite some poems and they exchange viewpoints about them. The robot recites a Japanese poem and a German poem and discusses the differences among the two.

The picture you see on your left is the robot. She can blink her eyes, nod and move her lips. But she can’t talk on her own, so when she talks during the play there has to be someone behind the scene to do it, just like in the old days where there was a talker behind a marionette play. However, the android was programmed in such a way that she autonomously moves her head and blink her eyes when she talks. Watching the play, one almost lost the sense that the suffering girl was talking to a robot or a machine. The understanding that the robot displays about the poems she is reciting and the lifelike way she behaves did result in myself suspending the belief for a time that there was a robot on stage. The audience, I think, lost this sense for some time, totally sympathizing with the suffering girl and with the android herself.

This raises a profound question in both philosophy and spirituality. In what sense do we suspend our beliefs in robots and actually become immersed in the play? Even though the voice was from a real human being, the performance of Geminoid, her looks, her eyes and her hand movements and so on, did convince me unconsciously that she was a real human being. When she said to the suffering girl that she was an android and that some of her kind were destroyed by the humans the audience sympathized with her quite a great deal. How could this delicate creature be destroyed in cold blood? We can think of someone destroying, throwing away old fridges and the like, but we do not feel the same way with Geminoid. She is not something to be destroyed because she displays some very human characteristics.

So the question in philosophy is: Does Geminoid have a mind? The answer, of course, is no because Geminoid has been developed specifically for performing on stage. She can’t stand up or walk around. She can only sit and blink her eyes and nod. But are these relevant for having mind? Not really. She cannot talk, but the most important thing is that she can “convince” us in the same way as an actor can convince us that he is Romeo courting Juliet, and so on. This is no small feat. But we can’t help thinking that, if the development for androids such as Geminoid were to go on further and further, there might be a time when a robot and a human become indistinguishable. If that is the case, then should we say that a robot actually does have a right? If the robot or the android (I am using the two terms interchangeably here) were to be totally indistinguishable from humans, then are they really humans? According to Leibniz’s Law, if two things are totally indistinguishable, then they are one and the same. We don’t need to go that far; we can only say that if they are indistinguishable, then they are of one and the same kind. This is more than enough.

But is the android conscious? Well, we still have the problem of being absolutely certain whether someone next to us is conscious or not, or whether they are zombies. Perhaps we can come closer and look closer into Geminoid’s eyes, then we can decide.

As for spirituality, the question is whether Geminoid has a soul, spark of life that is given by God perhaps. Here Buddhism does not have much of a problem. If Geminoid is indistinguishable from us, then she will be subject to the law of karma and other things that befall us humans too. She will have to be born again and it is conceivable that someone will have to be born as an android. This may be either good or bad karmas depending on the quality of life of this or that particular android. But this would mean that the android would have to be “sentient.” He or she needs to be capable of feeling pain and pleasure. But if the androids are totally indistinguishable from us, then they have to be able to feel pain. Then the androids will know what suffering is. And if they have cognitive powers, they can develop themselves so that they can come to understand the underlying nature of things. They can practice meditation and realize finally that all things are empty of their inherent nature. In a word, an android can, eventually, become a Buddha.

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