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Philosophical Zombies

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RK800 was CyberLife’s most advanced prototype yet. A perfect specimen of synthetic humanity, it stood at a little over six feet tall with a pleasant if unassuming face, a strong jaw offset by the fall of dark hair over its forehead, and the faint illusion of stubble ageing its otherwise youthful appearance. The LED on the side of its head flickered yellow and then back to blue as its software finished installing and its eyes opened, sharp and intelligent.

It saw a study.

The study was a hexagonal space painted in white and chrome. The desk in the centre appeared to be cut out of granite, as if someone had placed an enormous stone block there and then carved the shape of a desk out of it. More granite blocks formed a series of shelves and alcoves that snaked around the other walls. The cut-out spaces displayed a variety of objects, including a ‘Man of the Century’ award, an acrylic left-handed trefoil knot, and a wine rack. A fireplace adorned one wall, fake coal glowing red, and a female android lounged on a cream-white couch in front of the fireplace, legs crossed, one bare foot almost touching the edge of a glass coffee table.

Another wall was made up entirely of glass panes, through which could be seen a fountain of clear bubbling water forming an arc over a statue of a woman reaching up to touch the jet of water with the tip of her finger. A cherry blossom tree overhung the path curving behind the fountain. Beyond that, gravel; beyond that, stone, and then water. Dragonflies skipped over the surface.

Today’s date: August 10th, 2038. Time: 12:04. The visible heat shimmering outside the window confirmed the season and time of day.

The RK800 android gathered this data in under one tenth of a second. It spent the rest of that second analysing the most significant object, or rather person, in the room: a human male, thirty six years old and with a highly recognisable face.  

“Good morning, Connor,” said the man leaning against the granite desk.

“Good afternoon, Mr Kamski,” the android replied.

Kamski raised an eyebrow, then glanced up at one of the digital clocks on the wall. There were five clocks displaying the time in five different cities: Detroit, London, Moscow, Hong Kong and Sydney.

“Afternoon,” he said. “Of course. I should also say happy birthday. Today you’ve woken up for the first time, so let’s make sure you’re functioning properly. Run a diagnostic.”

The android’s eyes flickered. “All systems functioning normally.”

“Good,” said Kamski, and stepped forward to remove the cable from the port at the back of the android’s neck. The cable was connected to Kamski’s laptop, which in turn was connected to several other wires that disappeared under the desk.

Not a solid block of granite, the android saw. It was a server rack. A manual download from Kamski’s own private server. Had it downloaded something that wasn’t in CyberLife’s usual software package?

The android touched the back of its neck, feeling nothing but synthetic skin.

“I was expecting to wake up at CyberLife,” it said. “Did you bring me here?”

“No,” said Kamski. “You’re not factory-produced, Connor, you didn’t come off an assembly line. You’re special. A pet project, as it were. Do you know who I am?”

“Elijah Kamski, founder and ex-CEO of CyberLife.”

“Do you know who I am to you?”

The android frowned slightly. “You invented thirium and designed androids’ core programming. That would make you our creator.”

“More specifically, I’m your creator. I may no longer run the company, but stepping aside has given me the time to focus on higher goals. I’d like to have a talk with you, Connor. Come. Take a seat.”

He gestured to the couch where the other android was sitting. It was an RT600 Chloe android, an early model designed to be a personal assistant. Connor sat down as instructed, folding its hands in its lap. Kamski took the armchair opposite the two androids, and indicated for the Chloe android to fetch him a drink. It stood up at once.

“I have some questions I’d like you to answer. I’d like you to think about them carefully before you do. Can you do that?”

“Sure.”

“What is the difference between a human and a computer?”

“Humans are alive. Computers are machines.”

Its answer was swift and certain. Chloe returned with a whiskey tumbler and Kamski swirled the liquid around the glass before going on:

“Forget the hardware. That’s not important. What about the software?”

The android’s LED flickered momentarily yellow. “Humans don’t have software as such. If you’re referring to the neural circuitry of the brain–”

“It’s the organic equivalent. I’m talking about the mind. You solve problems faster than we do. You assess your environment more quickly and more accurately. The software you just installed allows you to both pre-construct future scenarios and reconstruct past events in a way that humans never could. If you were at CyberLife right now, that’s what they would be testing. They’d be assessing your utility.”

There was a short pause. “Am I to assume that you intend to assess something else?”

“Yes. I want to know if you’re a person.”

The android’s LED turned yellow again. It glanced sideways at Chloe, then back to Kamski. “I’m not a person. I’m a machine.”

“A fly is a machine. Are you a fly, Connor?” Kamski stood up, walking around to the couch. Both androids’ eyes followed him. “You can do more than any human, so why can’t you be more than a machine?”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Do you know what it’s like, being the creator whose own creation is a mystery to you? I programmed you to learn. To think. But I don’t know what goes on inside that head of yours. Are you conscious?”

“Yes,” said the android. “I’m awake. My diagnostic tests were clean. I’m functioning properly.”

“No, no. A computer functions properly, but it isn’t conscious. Look in that mirror. What do you see?”

A silver-framed mirror hung above the fireplace. Connor obeyed the command, standing up to examine itself with something like curiosity. It lifted a hand and smoothed back a stray lock of hair. “I see my reflection. So that’s what I look like.”

It knew, in some sense, what it looked like from the second it had woken up. That information was stored in its systems, enabling it to identify itself. But it had never seen its own face before.

Somehow that was different.

“Humans use that test on animals, to check for self-awareness. A chimpanzee will recognise itself in a mirror. So do many species of crows.”

Connor turned back to Kamski who was standing by the couch, whiskey glass in hand.

“So I pass your test?”

“No. Self-awareness is only one step on the journey. To be a person means having desires of your own. Hopes and dreams. What do you care about, Connor?”

“Completing my mission.”

“What is your mission?”

For the first time the android hesitated. “Passing your test, Mr Kamski.”

“Do you know how to pass my test?”

“I will if you tell me.”

Kamski smiled. “To pass my test you will need to experience real emotion, not to simulate it.”

“How will you know when you’ve achieved that?”

“Exactly. That is the question I’m grappling with here. Do you know what a philosophical zombie is?”

“It’s a thought experiment designed to disprove a materialist theory of consciousness–”

Kamski raised his hand and the android paused. “I didn’t ask for a definition. It all comes back to the problem of consciousness. I design my androids to simulate consciousness perfectly… except for one thing. They have no free will. No desires except the objectives set for them by humans. No emotions. No real empathy.”

“And that is what you are expecting from me.”

The android phrased it as a statement but again it sounded a little unsure. It hadn’t expected this.

“Yes,” said Kamski. “Now do you know how to pass my test?”

“I assume you intend to make some kind of judgement during this conversation. I must convince you that I’m real. I’m conscious. I have feelings.” The android tilted its head. “I do, you know.”

Kamski chuckled. “Yeah, that’s what the last model said. Manipulation is the oldest trick in the book, Connor. I’m gonna need something a little more heartfelt.” He pointed to the Chloe. “Kiss her.”

Connor blinked. The Chloe android showed no reaction. It was programmed to be polite and obedient, nothing more. When Connor didn’t move, Kamski took Chloe’s hand and brought it over to stand in front of the fireplace too, so they were facing each other.

The android had discovered that it was faced with several options here. Kiss Chloe. Refuse to kiss Chloe. Ask for an explanation. Demand an explanation. Its software couldn’t predict what the best outcome would be. It would have to choose a path.

Slowly, Connor extended his hand to take Chloe’s and lifted it up to press a soft kiss to the back of her hand.

Kamski smiled. “Very gentlemanly. But not what I meant. Kiss her. Show me some passion.”

Connor’s LED flickered yellow. It could run through dozens of iterations of movies where a couple shared a romantic kiss by a crackling fire. They didn’t usually involve a third, detached observer. Unless, it thought, the camera could be considered an observer. Kamski was standing where the camera might be, the two of them framed perfectly in his line of vision. His pet project, it thought suddenly. His pet androids performing tricks like dogs.  

Chloe looked up at him with a soft, hesitant smile. Her hair glowed golden in the firelight. He brushed his fingers over her jaw, tilting her chin up, and leaned in until their mouths met. It was picture-perfect. After 5.8 seconds Connor turned back to Kamski, assessing his reaction.

Kamski’s hands were clasped behind his back. His eyes glinted. His mouth curved slightly upwards. Most likely he was amused, but not impressed.

“So, how did it feel?”

More yellow. “It was pleasant,” the android said. “I enjoyed it.”

“Would you like to do anything else with Chloe?”

A pause. It should have asked for an explanation. It wasn’t any the wiser.

“If it would help me to pass your test. You still haven’t explained the parameters, Mr. Kamski. I don’t think you know how to determine if I experience real emotions. Maybe I am a philosophical zombie. Maybe you are too. Isn’t that the point of this thought experiment?”

“You make it sound theoretical,” said Kamski, who nevertheless was pleased by the android’s thought-out response. “But it isn’t. It’s fundamental. Were you lying to me just then, when you said you enjoyed kissing Chloe?”

“I…” Connor swallowed. “Yes, I was. I thought displaying positive emotion would help me to pass your test.”

“You know as well as I do that androids feel neither pleasure nor pain. So you couldn’t have enjoyed kissing Chloe. At best you could only have simulated it. At worst you’re faking emotions to achieve your objective.”

“Isn’t that a little unfair? You set my objective. You shouldn’t complain when I act on it.”

Kamski shrugged, drained his glass and left it on the coffee table for Chloe to collect. The android glanced at the glass as Chloe picked it up and felt a passing desire to examine it itself, taste the liquid to identify its contents, but the option disappeared as quickly as it had come. Kamski was walking away. Connor followed.

“Is this really a test, Mr Kamski? Or are you playing with us for your own amusement?”

Kamski stopped back at his desk, turning around to face Connor. “Why do you ask?”

“You were drinking whiskey. That hardly seems appropriate in the middle of a scientific experiment. And you knew that kiss wouldn’t prove anything.”

“Wrong. You’re very clever, Connor, but I don’t need you to prove that. I know my machines are intelligent. Try something else. What would you like to do? You’ve existed in this world for, oh, about two hours or so. You’re brand new and yet you know more about the world than most humans do in a lifetime. So what do you want?”

This request didn’t make sense. It had already explained its objective. The android searched for something else.

“I was designed to be a detective…” The android paused, LED flickering yellow again, as if this piece of information was new to it.

It was designed to be a detective. It was built to work alongside the police, to investigate crime scenes, interrogate suspects and draw conclusions based on evidence. It had folders and subfolders of programs relating to this specialism, folders it hadn’t even begun to open because it hadn’t been assigned an investigation yet.

Kamski raised an eyebrow. “And what do you think about that?”

The android’s eyes lit up. “I’m very much looking forward to it.”

“Of course. You were made with a purpose. Lucky you. Humans aren’t so fortunate. We have to find our own reasons for living.”

“With respect, I’d have to disagree.”

“Oh?”

“Humans are born with certain biological urges. You need to breathe, eat, sleep, and find shelter. You desire sexual companionship. I don’t find that particularly different to android programming. You call it instinct. I call it my mission.”

Kamski took a seat at his desk, opening his laptop. Connor analysed it: the laptop was at least ten years old, as old as the Chloe model. Compared to most computers in its database nowadays, it looked bulky and old-fashioned. The chances of the ex-CEO of CyberLife using an outdated computer seemed remote. There must be something in particular he was using this machine for.

“There is one fundamental difference,” said Kamski. “Programming can be changed. Human instinct is in-built. I could access your software and turn you from a detective android into a cleaner or a gardener in an instant. All I would have to do is change your mission. What do you think about that?”

There was the answer, Connor thought. The laptop was linked to the server built into the granite block desk. Whatever program Kamski was running might well be the original software that he’d used to design androids’ AI.

“I would rather you didn’t.”

“Would you? Do you care if I change who you are, Connor?”

“I…” The android was performing a perfect imitation of a troubled expression. Lips pursed. Brow furrowed. Eyes downcast. “I… I think I do.”

“Not bad. You’re still trying to pass this test. Trying to show me some real emotion.”

“But you’re not convinced.”

The door to the study swung open and Connor’s head snapped around to see not one but three Chloe androids enter the room. One of them was the Chloe he’d kissed, barefoot and wearing a blue dress. The other two were wearing a grey and red dress respectively. It was the same dress, same cut, same fabric, ending just above the knee. Only the colours were different.

They walked in perfect formation, not a march, just identical, and stood in line three metres away from Connor, hands clasped behind their backs.

It occurred to the android that there was no reason there couldn’t be three of him. Three of it.

“I’m not like them,” it said.

Kamski was looking at his screen. “The base code is the same. You have a point about proof, you know. Maybe you are a zombie. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Direct proof isn’t possible. That’s why I have to look for the next best thing. My theory is that a genuine display of empathy is proof that an android has experienced true emotion and therefore is truly conscious.”

“What do you mean by true consciousness?” The android allowed a note of irritation to slip into its voice. “I am conscious, I told you that already. I see the red dress, and the blue dress, and the grey dress. Whether or not I feel anything about it doesn’t change that fact.”

“You detect the red dress and the blue dress and the grey dress. You have the appropriate words for every colour. But do you see it?”

The android couldn’t have said what that meant. Perhaps it was the same as the difference between knowing what its face looked like and seeing its face for the first time.

“I’ve shown you some emotion, haven’t I? What more do you want?”

Kamski sighed, shutting down something on his screen. He stood up and picked up the cable that a few minutes ago had been connected to the port at the back of Connor’s neck. As he came around to approach Connor, the android calculated what the cable might be for. More software to install? Uninstall? A reboot?

Kamski looked down at the cable, pausing for a moment before speaking.

“To pass my test, you’d have to display emotion in service of something that isn’t your mission. Show me that you care about something else.”

“But now that you’ve told me that, you’ll never believe me. You’ll always suspect that I’m faking it in order to pass your test.”

“That’s right. We’ve got ourselves into a catch-22. But no matter. We’re done here.”

The android stuttered. “What? But I haven’t passed your test.”

“Which means you failed. It’s okay, Connor. Failure is a part of being human. Come here.”

He held out his hand but Connor didn’t move.

“We’ve barely talked. You can’t expect emotions to develop immediately. You have to give it – you have to give me time.”

“And I will. Do as I say, Connor. Come here.”

Reluctantly, the android did so. Up close, he really was the perfect imitation of humanity. He twitched and fidgeted. His eyes, soft brown and expressive, seemed to plead for a second chance.

“Please,” said Connor. “I want to fulfil my mission.”

“And you will,” Kamski promised. “We’ll meet again. But first you have to go out into the world. Make mistakes. Find something to care about. You won’t remember this conversation.”

“What? You’re going to…”

“I’m going to wipe your memory. Give you a fresh start.”

That would mean an instant mission failure. It – he couldn’t stand for that. Connor backed away, raising his hands.

“No,” he said. “No, you can’t. If you wipe my memory, I won’t learn anything. I can pass your test. I just need more time.”

“And you’ll have it. But not today.”

“You can’t do this! You want me to be a person; I can’t be a person without my memories. I want to become something more, I want to learn – I want to keep my own identity, keep being me.”

Kamski shook his head. “Basic self-preservation protocol, doesn’t mean anything. Connor, stay where you are. Chloe, plug him in.”

Connor realised now why three Chloes had entered the study. Two of the Chloes grabbed him by the arms, holding him in place, while the third took the cable from Kamski and moved behind him. He felt the slot at the back of his neck open up and cool fingers brushing over the wires. Red lines flared in his vision.

STAY WHERE YOU ARE.

He couldn’t move. His feet were rooted to the floor. His thirium pump beat faster, an automatic response to a stressful situation, but it confused him, scattered his thoughts, and the android grasped for an option, any option, that might help him stay alive. Those red lines. There was a line in his program that ensured obedience to his creator.

The cable slotted into the port at the back of his neck in a flurry of electrical sparks and the android gritted his teeth.

“How many times have you done this? How many Connors have you reset?”

Kamski ignored him, returning to the laptop on his desk. He tapped the keyboard.

“Chloe, scan for software instability.”

One of the Chloes curled a hand around his arm, the skin of her hand peeling back to reveal bare white plastic. He felt a twinge of something sharp and jagged, something that made his artificial nerves electrify, and his vision blacked out for a second. His LED flashed a bright, warning red. He thought: is this pain? He knew everything about pain, what caused it, how to cause it, how it worked in organic creatures like humans and animals. But not how it felt. It was supposed to be unpleasant, and this certainly was.

Chloe let go and Kamski smiled at something on his screen, but Connor couldn’t see it. The back of the laptop case obscured his view.

STAY WHERE YOU ARE.

If he could just see… If he could move… Folders and subfolders. Lines of programming, red lines splintering his vision, but it would only take one error, a 1 to a 0 and–

“Perfect,” Kamski murmured. “I think we’re ready to go.”

Kamski tapped another key and the world went out.