In the movie, I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s story collection, Will Smith’s character Detective Spooner engages a particular robot, named Sonny, in a conversation about what distinguishes a human being from a robot:
Spooner: Robots don’t feel fear. They don’t feel anything. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep.
Sonny: I do. I have even had dreams.
Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you. You are just a machine, an imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?
Sonny [with genuine interest]: Can you?
The exasperation on the detective’s face betrays his answer to the robot’s question: “No, I can’t…but I’m still a human being, and you’re still just a machine.” But if few humans can separate themselves from machines by the symphonies they write or the canvases they turn into beautiful masterpieces, what separates the rest of us?
A conscience? Hope? A need—to be respected, to be rewarded, to belong?
Maybe we’re defined by the unpredictability of our natural language communication. We consider regular, uniform patterns and inappropriately rote behavior to be “machinelike.”1 Alan Turing suggested that if a machine can carry on a text conversation that convinces people that it thinks like a person, it has passed a significant test of what it means to be human.
Even for a human, it can be very hard to pass that test.
1With that in mind, people who worry about having their job taken by a machine would do well not to do their job like a machine.