Monday, 11 June 2012

Philosophy in Film: Are objects as important as humans?

Spielberg’s futuristic film Artificial Intelligence blurs the line between living and non-living beings, and raises ethical questions of life, and whether robots are as important as humans.

Set in the future, the film Artificial Intelligence follows the story of David, an artificially created boy. David is the prototype of a new type of robot, or mecha, possessing the looks and characteristics of a real child, and has the ability to love.
David is adopted by the Swinton family as a substitute child for their own gravely ill human son. Although Monica, David’s adopted Mother, seems to give very little thought to the ramifications of their choice. When their human son recovers, David is no longer needed in their family and is to be taken and destroyed. Monica seems to have misgivings and instead decides to take and abandon David in the woods.

David, in a nod to Pinocchio, sets out to become a ‘real boy’, all in a quest to be loved by his mother Monica again. This heart-wrenching story portrays the long conflicting argument of whether robots are in fact people, and what rights they deserve in our society. The audience is immediately set-up to feel empathy for David, and with his human-like intelligence and emotions, the lines between the living and the non-living become even more complicated.
David and Teddy
The philosopher Descartes (1991) suggested that you have to have ‘a mind and soul’ to be considered human, and that these broken laws of nature are what makes us a person. On the other hand, Kant (SEP, 2008) argues that rationality is what sets us apart. The ability to make decisions and shape our own existence is what makes us human. Taking that into account, David, could then be considered a human, as he chases after the dream of becoming a real boy and winning back his mother’s love. As a measured and self-motivated reasoning, David makes a human-like decision.

David and adoptive mother Monica
In the movie it is said that David was built with “an inner world of metaphor, of intuition, of self motivated reasoning. Of dreams.” (Spielberg, 2001).

Sentience is the key issue when dealing with robot rights. The ability to feel pleasure and pain and to form meaningful relationships are the distinguishing features when it comes to defining a human being. Although the main argument in the fight for animal rights in society, was that animals are able to feel pain and form companion relationships; defining them as sentient beings. In the case with AI, when we have robots and other objects that can feel, will they then be considered sentient beings, and will society then begin to advocate for them? Will we then give robots their own set of rights, alike animals, in society?

David, the robot boy
How can we ever decide on a complete and final definition on what makes us human and what value we place on non-humans, when the world around us is constantly changing?  The professor who created David states that he has given him “the greatest single human gift – the ability to chase down our dreams” (Spielberg, 2001), in effect, making David a sentient being, with the same rights and responsibilities as a human; making David a ‘real’ boy.

Reference List
Descartes, RenĂ©, (1991). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch and Anthony Kenny, Cambridge: Cambridge Universiety Press, 3 vols.1984-1991.

Freitas, R.A. (1985). The Legal Rights of Robots. Retrieved from

Keller, E. (2007). Once again, ‘What is life?’. Retrieved from Queensland University of Technology Course Materials Database.

Latour, B. (2009). Will Non-humans be Saved? An argument in Ecotheology. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Retrieved from Queensland University of Technology Course Materials Database.

Litch, M.M. (2002). Philosophy through Film. New York: Routledge. Chapter 4.

Spielberg, S. (Director). (2001). AI: Artificial Intelligence. [Motion picture]. Warner Brothers Pictures.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2008). Kant's Moral Philosophy. Retrieved from

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