Developing Consciousness in AI and cute spider robots

Last week I talked about magic in a fantasy novel – though in the comments we learned it might be best to think of it as a science fantasy. So this week let’s consider a science fiction text. Specifically, the webcomic Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques.

I’ve been a fan of Jacques’ comic for years now. It’s what introduced me to my favorite band, in fact, back when it was a comic about “making indie band jokes” (I kid). But ever since the beginning the comic has featured self-aware, strong AI-driven robots/personal computers called AnthroPCs – that is, relatively human-shaped PCs. At this point it also features robotic hands that appear to respond like the real thing; an orbital space station with its own mostly hologrammatic AI; and at least one very cute giant robot spider assistant. I guess maybe, given some of Jacques’ blog posts, some people argue over whether or not it’s SF? That seems silly, so just go ahead and assume it is for our purposes here today.

So it’s SF then. So what? Well, Jacques has also been very public about his desire to include characters of all sorts, including sex, gender, skin color, ethnic background, so on, so on. The driving impetus behind that – or one of them – is his idea of acceptance. Among the cast of characters in the comic there is rarely anything other than acceptance, and some of the various quirks of the characters include dangerous levels of OCD (and stalking! Well, not really), transgenderism, LGBT of all sorts, and the strangest kind of person of all: the indie music blogger.

The comic can go weeks at a time without its SF elements appearing – on the other hand, if you took as many people as the comic has out of society, randomly, it would be very unlikely to get so many entirely accepting people. So, honestly, the altered, SF society is reflected, to some degree, in the characters themselves, two of whom are AnthroPCs themselves.

What about the AnthroPCs, though? At first they were companions, the main character’s being somewhat insane and obsessed with porn. But in the past few years Jacques has developed them more – it’s not just Marten, the main character, who thinks of his AnthroPC as a friend who happens to have some USB slots. In that same strip I linked to above Marten tells his story of getting Pintsize – everyone is screened and matched to compatible AI personalities. So Marten didn’t just walk into a store and happen to buy his computer who turned out to be his friend. That’s the goal. Note the receptionist is an AnthroPC as well – the other AnthroPC with a lot of “screen time,” Momo, assures her “owner” that they choose what they want to do. She didn’t have to be a human’s companion at all, if she didn’t want to. So they’re certainly Strong AI, with their own desires. They’re autonomous, with consciousness, feelings, wants, fears, and even anxieties.

And what does that have to do with the generally accepting nature of the characters as I outlined above? A lot, if we stop to think about it.

The setting of Questionable Content posits a near-future world in which technology has created totally independent machine minds, AIs. It is also a future world in which people are, on average, more accepting and willing to group together independent of background or other things that separate people in the zero world. It is also a setting in which AIs develop their own beliefs, run their own lives, and live alongside humans.

These themes are all connected. Consider the AnthroPCs again. We already know they don’t have to be humanoid, even the cartoonish humanoid of Pintsize. They can look like enormous (classic) iPods or giant spiders. And yet their consciousnesses are, so far as I have been able to tell, almost exactly like human consciousnesses. Sure, they may have been influenced to begin with by human programmers, but that is likely no longer the case. They developed parallel to humans and ended up the same.

Do you know the thing about squid eyes? I’m pretty sure I’m getting this right, correct me if I’m wrong. Current theory posits that they developed independently of eyes in other creatures. That is, most eyes on the planet have a common ancestor, something with photo-receptive cells, but the squid’s eyes developed on their own. But because light is such a good way of detecting things, they developed into very similar organs in both cases – parallel evolution of similar constructs with different backgrounds, based on similar circumstances.

That’s what’s happening with consciousness in Questionable Content. Jacques’ societal construction – one that values coming together rather than dividing apart – underscores the development of parallel, similar consciousness in the machine entities – not just the AnthroPCs, but also characters like the AI who runs the space station and watched Hannelore (the very OCD character) grow up. Despite their differences in biology, including different fundamental needs and methods of interacting with the world, their minds are remarkably similar. They even develop religion of a sort. Why?

They’re part of society. In the comic, the human animal is defined as a social animal, an entity that comes together. We are at our most human when we create groups and continue to let people in, rather than excluding them or barring them. The AI entities are also social, and as such developed in the same way. Similar environments, similar adaptations.

Of course, it could always be that what we see is their interface with the humans, and were they truly alone with one another the AIs would be very different. But the stories featuring Momo and her “owner” Marigold seem to deny that, at least to me. Of course, the comic’s still going, so next month or next year everything could change. Oh well.

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