Data, and the nature of sentience

In summary, this conversation explores the concepts of sentience and consciousness through the trial of Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Commander Maddox argues that Data, an android, is not a sentient being and has no rights, while Captain Picard argues that Data meets the criteria for sentience and deserves the same rights as any other life-form in the Federation. This debate raises questions about the nature of consciousness and the potential consequences of treating artificially intelligent beings as mere machines.
  • #1
In a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Bruce Maddox has orders to disassemble the android, Data, for scientific study. Data refused Starfleet’s orders to undergo the procedure, and argued his case in court. The following is an excerpt of the trial:

PICARD: Commander Maddox, it is your contention that Data is not a sentient being and therefore not entitled to those rights reserved for all other life-forms in this Federation?
MADDOX: Data is not sentient, no.
PICARD: Why, Commander?
MADDOX: Because Data is a piece of outstanding engineering and programming.
PICARD: What is required for sentience?
MADDOX: Intelligence, self awareness, consciousness.
PICARD: Do you know what sentience is, Commander?
MADDOX: Of course.
PICARD: Excellent. Then you can enlighten the rest of us. Prove to this court that I'm sentient.
MADDOX: This is absurd!
PICARD: Why? Because you can't do it?
MADDOX: No, it's just pointless. We all know you're sentient.
PICARD: So I'm sentient, but Data isn't?
MADDOX: That's right.
MADDOX: Well... well, you're self aware.
PICARD: Ah, the second ingredient. But let's deal with the first requirement. Is Data intelligent?
MADDOX: It has the ability to learn and understand, and to cope with new situations.
PICARD: Like this hearing. What about self awareness. What does that mean? Why am I self aware?
MADDOX: Because you are conscious of your existence and actions. You're aware of yourself and your own ego.
PICARD: Data, what are you doing now?
DATA: I am taking part in a legal hearing to determine my rights
and status. Am I property or person?
PICARD: And what's at stake?
DATA: My right to choose. Perhaps my very life.
PICARD: My rights. My status. My right to choose. My life. He seems pretty damn self aware to me. Well, Commander Maddox, I'm waiting.
MADDOX: This is exceedingly difficult...
PICARD: Do you like Data?
MADDOX: I don't know it well enough to like or dislike it.
PICARD: But you admire him?
MADDOX: Oh yes, it's an outstanding --
PICARD: (interrupting) Piece of engineering and programming. Yes, you've said
that. You've devoted your life to the study of cybernetics in general?
PICARD: And Data in particular?
PICARD: And now you're proposing to dismantle him.
MADDOX: So I can rebuild him and construct more!
PICARD: How many more?
MADDOX: Hundreds, thousands. There's no limit.
PICARD: And do what with them?
MADDOX: Use them.
MADDOX: As effective units on Federation ships. As replacements for humans in dangerous situations. So much is closed to us because of our fragility. But they...
PICARD: (interrupting; he picks up an object and throws it down a disposal chute) Are expendable.
MADDOX: It sounds harsh but to some extent, yes.
PICARD: Are you expendable, Commander Maddox? Never mind. A single Data is a curiosity, a wonder, but a thousand Datas, doesn't that become a new race? And aren't we going to be judged as a species about how we treat these creations? If they're expendable, disposable, aren't we? What is Data?
MADDOX: What? I don't understand.
PICARD: What... is... he?
MADDOX: (angry now and hostile) A machine!
PICARD: Is he? Are you sure?
PICARD: But he's met two of your three criteria for sentience, and we haven't addressed the third. So we might find him meeting your third criterion, and then what is he?
MADDOX: (driven to his limit) I don't know. I don't know!

Any comments?
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  • #2
Sentience is such an over-hyped and exaggeratec concept that people get very angry when you try and understand/explain it.

Everything we think/do/feel (including sentience) is a result of the electrochemical activity in our neural networks. The networks are very very complicated which means that the variety and intensity of our throughts/actions/feelings are also equally, if not more, complicated. But in the end the mind is just the activity of the brain. There is no magical spirit or soul or anything else.

We're machines ... very complicated machines ... but machines nonetheless. This label of consciousness or sentience that we often use will not magically transform us into anything else.

Here are a few of the many many many myths surrounding this topic at the moment.
It may be upsetting to think of ourselves as glorified gears and springs. Machines are insensate, built to be used, and disposable; humans are sentient, possessing of dignity and rights, and infinitely precious. A machine has some workaday purpose, such as grinding grain or sharpening pencils; a human being has higher purposes, such as love, worship, good works, and the creation of knowledge and beauty. The behavior of machines is determined by the ineluctable laws of physics and chemistry; the behavior of people is freely chosen. With choice comes freedom, and therefore optimism about our possibilities for the future. With choice also comes responsibility, which allows us to hold people accountable for their actions. And of course if the mind is separate from the body, it can continue to exist when the body breaks down, and our thoughts and pleasures will not someday be snuffed out forever.

Sad wishful thinking. I personally am proud of what I am and don't need to delude myself in order to feel so.

- S.
  • #3
Greetings Entropia !

I'm starting to read a book called "Kinds of Minds"
by Daniel C. Dennett . Supposedly, it has great
recomendations and explains in a general and
yet expert way concepts like intellegence and
consciousness and many issues connected with
these subjects. You may wan'na try it. :wink:

"Does dice play God ?"

Live long and prosper.
  • #4
This scenario is already being played out, we don't have to wait hundred of years to see the results. The Turing test has already shown computer programs which we know perfectly well are not self-aware can be designed to fool even experts. Essentially, over a data terminal the experts cannot tell who is a real person and what is a computer program.

For me, its a moot point anyway, along the lines of counting how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Eventually machines even more life-like than commander Data will be built. Then the argument will come home to roost.

From a historical perspective, this fight has already occurred repeatedly in history. Slaves have often been considered animals, less than human, unintelligent, not self-aware or possessed of a soul. I assume we will go through this same process yet again with machines.

Their owner's will claim they have the right to do whatever they want with them just as slave owners used to do, that they aren't human. However, the argument will eventually break down to the same thing. People just won't be willing in the long run to watch something that resembles themselves be used and abused, tortured and summarilly executed.

This reminds me a little of a famous judge in Missouri who overthrew the long standing ban on cock fighting by declaring chickens are walking vegitables. I've worked with chickens and, as much as I like them, he is correct. There is nobody home. Still, they resemble ourselves just enough that people who watch endless graphic violence on tv cannot stand the thought of allowing cock fights. Not that I'm advocating cock fighting mind you. :0)
  • #5
We have built in prejudices about the value of other things, prejudices that are largely responsible for our evolving into what we are. We value animals above plants, humans above other animals, our own race above other humans, our tribe above others of our race and our family above others of our tribe. In our more primitive past, it had been beneficial to exploit these "others". Upon becoming "civilized" we no longer accept exploitation as a de facto acceptable behavior. This does not change our exploitative behaviour though. The first step is to engage in rationalization. Rather than giving up slavery, we come up with "good" reasons for it. The step from exploitation to rationalized exploitation is generally accompanied by much self-congatulatory admiration for how civilized we have become. The next step, to the cessation of exploitation is usually a real ***** of a struggle.