In Phillip Dick’s science fiction story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” From which Ridley Scott’s 1980s cult film Blade Runner was also based, the author poses an important question: how do we recognize whether we are dealing with a human being or an android? This is a crucial question to ask, as Dick tells of a post-apocalyptic world, in which the earth has been devastated by a nuclear war, and humanity has made androids to send into deep space in search of new inhabited worlds. Remember that androids are robots with human appearance and behavior, but in the world of the novel the difficulty of identification increases, as they are completely biological. In the story, they have become slaves for humanity who use them for the hardest jobs, and some of them begin to rebel. With the rebellions underway, bounty hunters come into play and are tasked with capturing and eliminating the rebellious androids. But how can we distinguish them from humans if they look like us in every detail? And what if one day an android happens to sit next to us on a train, or if he is standing in front of us in the queue at the post office? Will we be able to identify it? Here we try to explain.
The Voigt-Kampff test and the Nexus-6: when androids challenge human recognition
In Phillip Dick’s science fiction novel, the Rosen workshops have replaced their old T-14 android models, of modest intelligence, with the new Nexus-6 latest-generation androids, with an intelligence and speed of response almost equal to that of humans. As mentioned above, some models have rebelled and are on the run, and it is up to the bounty hunters to recognize and eliminate them. But how do we distinguish them from human beings? The answer is to subject them to the Voigt-Kampff test, but even then it is not easy. In the book, this test is described as an instrument used to measure a person’s empathy by analyzing the variation of the pupil and iris in response to specific empathic questions, with the ‘hunter’ being interested not so much in the answer itself but the reaction to the question. The new Nexus-6 models are proving to be a real test case, but in the end, they too have too much reason and too little emotional passion, because no matter how clever machines may be, in the end, they are still cold machines. Hume tells us how passions change from living to artificial, concerning time and experience.
What does Hume tell us in his “Treatise on Human Nature” about the relationship between humans and androids?
David Hume’s most famous work is undoubtedly the “Treatise on Human Nature”, a work in which the philosopher tries to outline what is an empirical investigation into human nature. In our search for what differentiates a human from an android, Hume is essentially important for three concepts, but these form the background to his three general and necessary principles of human nature. Indeed, his three general principles (priority of impressions over ideas, freedom of the imagination, association of ideas), if not contextualized, can be found in both human beings and their artificial counterparts. But if we take these three principles and apply them to three other factors, namely time, experience, and the superiority of the passions over reason, then the differences begin to emerge. Hume was an empiricist, so it was only through experience that knowledge could be gained, he applied this method also to ‘human things’ not only to natural science. The second concept to create a differentiation concerns time and its application to experience. For the Scottish philosopher, time is indivisible and continuous, the experience lies within time, and memory is the result of these two factors. It is the origin of an individual and personal identity. The androids described in the novel, due to a lack of cell turnover, have an average ‘life’ time of about four years, which is less than the time needed to create an identity through memory, create important experiences and experience Hume’s temporal vision. Beware, however, that some may have been equipped with chips for the synthetic production of memories, so how would our philosopher help us if we were faced with one of these models with an artificial memory? The passions come to the rescue. Hume argues that man is a slave to the passions, which are secondary impressions reflected about the main ones, but also a way of learning about the outside world. He divides them into two types, the calm ones (sense of beauty) and the violent ones (love, hate). Androids also have passions, but it is where they originate that makes the difference. In Hume’s view, they are not created in reason but have their mechanism outside reason. The passions also have a strong social value, since they are the ones that regulate the relations of sympathy and empathy in people, and therefore have an impact on the creation of social life. In androids, on the other hand, passions originate in reason and are mediated through reason, making them “colder” and less emotional. For example, if we showed an android a picture of a kitten, their reaction would be slower because it would not be an almost instinctive response as it would happen to a human, but it would be a response that would first be submitted to reason, which would have to answer a: “how do I react?”. One last issue that I like to submit in briefly analyzing the difference between living and artificial using Hume’s philosophy, is the fact that Hume attributed the passions also to all other animals besides a man. This is a new attribution; his predecessors, such as Descartes, farmed animals as mere machines. In conclusion to this small paragraph, according to Hume and Dick, the thing that differentiates us from androids is the way we relate to the passions, which in the end is also a foregone conclusion since they are the most human things we possess.
How kittens can help us understand if we have an android in front of us
In this last part, my idea is very simple: using the guidelines provided by Dick in his book, I would like to create a small test on how to understand if our interlocutor is an android or a human being. Taking my cue from both the book and the film, the Voigt-Kampff test outlines various hypothetical situations in which various subjects suspected of being escaped androids are subjected. These range from personal questions about their memories of their mother (an android has no mother), to empathy questions such as: “How would you behave if you were confronted with a turtle that had turned on its back and couldn’t turn around?” or: “If a child showed you a turtle that had been turned on its back, how would you act? Or: “if a child showed you his collection of butterflies, how would you feel?”. All these questions that are present in the work, however, are too direct and are unlikely to go unnoticed, so if you ever have the doubt that the person in front of you is an android, I propose the cat test. Suddenly show your suspect a picture of a kitten, we live in the era of kittens, everyone likes them and if one is human he/she will have an empathetic response, if the person in front of you does not have an immediate response, then most likely you are looking at an android. As we said above androids also possess passions, but reasoned passions, timing, and taking them by surprise is as crucial as the test itself. It is the immediate empathic response that tells us the result. So kittens are not only very cute, but in the event of an android invasion, they could also help us save the world.