Recently, I got sucked into a discussion of sentience and whether or not such a condition could be achieved in silicon. I said I wasn’t sure it had been achieved yet in meat. But I do remain optimistic that it’s possible.

The problem with creating sentience in silicon—or meat—is that first we need to understand the goal. We’re talking about rational self-awareness. Calling it “artificial intelligence” is woefully inaccurate. We have plenty of evidence that machines can be programmed to behave intelligently, but that is not the same as self-awareness, and outside of the specific domain it has been programmed for, the machine is simply dumb.

I dislike the term “artificial intelligence.” It’s imprecise. It presumes that there is such a thing as “genuine intelligence.” Cynical observers of human behavior have justifiable reason to doubt this. Indeed, the single most compelling piece of evidence that there is intelligent life in the universe lies in the fact that they have not contacted anyone on this planet.

The problem with discussing “sentience” is the same problem that occurs with discussing “intelligence.” As soon as a person understands the concept, he also assumes it applies to himself. But the evidence of online participation—Facebook, website comment threads, various discussion forums—is that half of the human race is of below-average intelligence. The half that is above average may very well be too smart to participate in Facebook, website comment threads, or various discussion forums.

I’m fussy about language. It’s the only tool we have. In practice, this shows up as a persnickety obsession with precision. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

But more than that, I think language processing is where intelligence, and ultimately sentience, occurs. Certainly it is how both of these conditions are expressed. Language exists as a set of symbols that can be manipulated, much like Lego bricks, for the construction of astonishingly complex domains.

Even more pernicious, we can move so enthusiastically into those linguistic domains that we forget that we created them ourselves. We become captured by our language, trapped into perceiving the world a certain way because of the words we use to define and explain it. We assign explanations and then believe in the explanations. Muslims are terrorists. Gays are flamboyant. Blacks are dangerous. Women are manipulative. Asians are smart. Liberals are socialists. Rich people are greedy. We lock ourselves into our own prejudices. Instead of owning our language, it owns us.
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One of my teachers once taught me a great way to break out of the trap. Examine the distinctions to find out what you’re really saying. He used the word “generosity” as an example. “What’s the opposite of generosity? Mean, stingy, withholding. The opposite of that is open, giving and accessible. So there’s your access to what you’re distinguishing as generosity.”

Applying the same approach to “intelligence,” the opposite of intelligence is “stupidity.” We perceive stupidity as a condition that includes ignorance, flawed logic, unprovable assertions, inaccurate judgments, inappropriate choices, decisions made without regard to consequences. In brief, we see stupidity as a set of behaviors that fail to produce results. This can include dogmatic stubbornness, an emotional investment in beliefs that have no applicable referents in the physical universe, and an overall breakdown in ability to understand what’s really going on.

About David Gerrold