The Personalist Project

Do you ever wonder just what personalist philosophers are talking about when they say "subjectivity" and "interiority" and "the I"? Here's one answer: it's what robots don't have and never will.

You don't have to watch Star Wars anymore to know what it's like to live in a world populated by robots. Machines are imitating us, and, more and more, vice versa. Plenty of people are finding it harder and harder to put their finger on the difference between us and them, and lots of us seem to view it a difference of degree, not kind.

We program machines to mimic and surpass us. A calculator can do what it does faster and more efficiently than a human being can. A search engine's "memory" is far more powerful than a person's. A computer can beat us at chess. Machines are getting better and better at imitating thinking, reasoning, reflecting.

They're sometimes better at customer relations, too. Recently we moved, and our new physician (let's call her Dr. X) and her staff are, not to put too fine a point on it, incompetent, inattentive to detail, and startlingly cavalier about the effects of that carelessness on their patients. The difference between them and their machines is stark, and the machines comes off looking like an improvement.

When you call the office, you're met with a cheerful, friendly, unfailingly patient voice that gathers your information, tells you how long your wait time will be, how concerned your doctor is about you, what services are offered and when, and which numbers to push for which kind of help.

But eventually a human being picks up the phone, and it's downhill from there. Actually, the doctor isn't available, the prescription isn't approved, the appointment has to be delayed, and nobody cares. Never mind that you pushed 5 last week to set up automatic refills; the human beings don't acknowledge that it ever happened, no matter how confident and reassuring the voice recognition system sounded at the time. Instead of cheerful sympathy, the receptionist relays her information with poorly concealed distaste for you and your inconvenient medical needs.

Another prosaic example: do you have trouble keeping your cool while helping your child with his algebra homework? Now you can purchase a DVD with a voice that explains concepts with unfailing patience, stopping, starting, repeating, or allowing for extra practice, according to your preferences. No pesky human frustration or loss of temper.

Machines can be interactive, too. I remember hearing a program on National Public Radio about a "therapist program," with voice recognition and response capacity. If you told it, "I feel lonely," it could answer, "So I'm hearing you say you feel alone.Why is that?" Then you might answer, "My family doesn't appreciate me," and it could say, "I see. You feel your family is not meeting your need for appreciation." And so on. Experiments indicated that patients seemed to be helped by this "counseling." It did a good imitation of the kind of therapy that reflects back your thoughts and feelings to you, never judging or pushing you towards a particular solution.

This kind of thing leads some to believe that machines are coming closer and closer to "achieving consciousness" or "becoming persons." And people could be forgiven for wondering if maybe they will do a better job of it than some of the flesh-and-blood specimens we're stuck with today. But a world populated with beings that had nothing in them except what we had put there by our programming would be the ultimate in the self-referential life, a kind of idolotry of self that would allow us to avoid what Max Scheler would call the "resistance" that reality offers our consciousness.

We're pushed to mimic machines, too. Anyone who's been instructed "Please say or enter your seventeen-digit ID number" and has tried to reel it off as precisely and clearly as a high-quality computer knows what I mean. Or anyone who's been on either end of a call that "is being recorded for training purposes." The voice on the other end is that of a real human person, but as far as possible all creativity, common sense, and spontaneity is being squeezed out of him. The ideal trainee supplies the correct canned response as efficiently as a machine--while also maintaining a convincing imitation of concern for the customer on the other end.

Machines have become efficient beyond our wildest dreams and persons make life just as messy as they always have. Subjectivity and interiority seem to many to be more trouble than they're worth. But maybe it's more important than ever not to settle for self-referential idolotry, even if it feels like progress. 

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