chapter  1
Problematizing personhood differently
Pages 23

What is a person? T. R. Miles (1957) tackled this philosophical issue imaginatively. He invited the reader to imagine homo mechanisma: a flesh and blood machine that is capable of producing exactly the same responses we would expect of a human being. Psychologists could measure its IQ and psychiatrists could determine its psychopathology. It would show affection if people were kind to it, anger and dismay if people tried to cheat it, and due appreciation when confronted with a beautiful poem or a beautiful sunset. On what grounds should we deny the machine the status of personhood? This thought experiment may throw light on how ‘the concepts “man”, “machine”, “mind” and “consciousness” … function at present’ (ibid: 278). I open with Miles’s little known essay because the present study seeks to do something roughly similar. It interrogates social robotics to see how concepts such as person and robot, human and machine, and subjectivity or the self, operate at present. Technology-wise the present day is quite different from the 1950s, when Miles contrived homo mechanisma-a decade that was launched with Alan Turing’s (1950) seminal paper, which famously set a benchmark for artificial intelligence (AI). The Turing Test is premised on the extent to which people interacting with an AI are fooled into believing that they are interacting with another human. Likewise the premise of Miles’s thought experiment is that people will be completely fooled by the machine. Today, caricatured humanoid robots such as ASIMO (Honda), QRIO (Sony), NAO (Aldebaran Robotics) and iCub (developed as part of the EU project RobotCub) are not designed to fool anyone. Whereas Miles sought to pinpoint existing criteria that may prevent assimilating homo mechanisma into humanity, some roboticists and scientists close to the engineering field call for altering our existing criteria of personhood so as to accommodate the machine. The field’s goal ought to be defined in terms of ‘the creation of an artificial person, while defining person with language that is free of … the presumption of human superiority,’ say MacDorman and Cowley (2006: 378). This view is not promoted by everyone in robotics, but its expression even by a few evinces how conventional conceptions of personhood are being challenged.