Do robots marvel at electric sunsets?

Posted: May 29, 2009 in Uncategorized

There’s a scene in Wall-E where he sits with Eve, waiting for her spaceship, and watches a beautiful sunset. Clearly, he is shown to be appreciating the magnificent site, but the moment made me wonder: would he have seen the sunset as beautiful?


Most tests of artificial intelligence seem to focus on how humanlike the responses are in terms of “Intelligent” answers that would be indistinguishable from those that a real human would give – the so-called Turing Test. They need to be logical, make the right connections and be properly phrased (obviously not using civil servants as a comparison, then). Over time, they demonstrate the ability to learn from past experiences and apply this learning to new answers. However, this all seems to relate primarily to an ability to analyse existing data and then draw rational conclusions which are applied appropriately. All good and well, but can we apply that kind of process to aesthetic appreciation? What people find beautiful is often so diverse, and such an emotional rather than logical response, that I must doubt that it is so.

It seems to me that an ability to appreciate beauty would require much more than an ability to analyse data: it would require consciousness. That little term can be tough to define, but must at least be a self awareness that enables the thing that is conscious to make independent choices and observations that cannot necessarily be logically defined. It must be something that you can’t consciously program but must be a leap from something existing into something new. And if I really saw a machine marvelling at a sunset when it hadn’t been programmed to do so, then I’d know we had a real, new intelligence.

That said, if AI was eventually able to make the leap to consciousness (wow, what would that say about the soul?), questions still abound. Chiefly, I’d be curious to know what they would find beautiful. Would a sleek nuclear missile be inherently more beautiful to it than the verdant forest that the missile would obliterate? Would it be mainly things artificial and created that would inspire in it awe and wonder or would it appreciate natural things, which would surely be completely alien, in a sense. It would be fascinating to see how different those things might be from those that we, as humans, considered beautiful.

And then a final thought: perhaps the appreciation would simply reflect those things that the original programmer found beautiful, the parameters being so firmly set that they cannot be overcome. And if that is true for all things created, what does it say about us? Do we simply find beautiful those things that our Programmer finds beautiful too?

  1. P.A.N says:

    Steve, that was so insghtful and amusing too. Back to the days of HAL on a less sophisticated level

  2. veethree says:

    Ah yes, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”…great movie. Definitely consciousness there!

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