They are the digital Frankenstein’s monsters of our age – created, sentient machines who have consciousness, emotions, self-awareness and free will. They are often in our movies and TV shows: Gort, HAL, Data, Terminator, Wall-E, Iron Giant, to name a famous few.

However, are sentient machines even possible? Alan Turing famously invented the ‘Imitation Game’, a test which evaluates whether a machine exhibits behaviour which is indistinguishable from human behaviour. No machine has passed this test to date. I believe this is partly because the human mind does far more than recognise patterns and process data. Human existence is aware, emotional, creative, and conscious – states science is still at a loss to explain.

The debate has raged for hundreds of years about whether humans are merely collections of self-aware chemicals here by incredulous chance, or whether intrinsic parts of our conscious existence include a soul and spirit. If the former is true, then we should eventually be able to create other sentient beings from matter. However, if the latter is true, then our sentience could well be tied to the fact that we possess souls and spirits, things beyond the reach of material science.

My oldest son, Eric Holloway, has a PhD in computer engineering and is fascinated by the discussions about conciousnes, sentience and artificial intelligence. A few years ago he wrote an article about this, No Materialist Theory of Conciousness is Plausible. A colleague of his, Robert Epstein, goes even further and explores another hypothesis of the nature of our brain in Your Brain is not a Computer. It is a Transducer.

Perhaps you’ve already met the character Nemo, as you read Pelagia. Nemo is an ‘augmented intelligence agent’ (AIA), my take on the Alexas and Siris of the future.  He is merely an algorithm and certainly not sentient. Yet, paradoxically he is a beloved member of the Battuta family, whom he serves aboard the Ossë seasteading vessel. I was inspired to write about his nurturing association (you can only have a relationship between two sentient beings) with Sophia, a young autistic nine-year-old girl,  after reading a NY Times article, To Siri, With Love.

I believe our ongoing interaction with these AIAs of the future will usher in neither a utopia or dystopia, but instead will be a human future in which we sensibly adapt to change – such as living with sophisticated AIAs – as we always have.

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