Margaret Atwood on what really separates people from machines


Photo: Miguel Riopa/Getty

Last week, Margaret Atwood was the opening keynote speaker at the CHI conference on Human Computer Interaction in Toronto. The topic of her lecture was "Robotics in my Work and Life." CBC Radio's Spark caught up with Atwood after her talk, and you can listen to that conversation in the audio player below:

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Robots raise a fundamental question about what it means to be alive and where the distinction of alive and not alive might lie. To be considered alive, for Atwood, is a question of whether or now the robot can feel pain. "At the moment in which they feel pain you might have to start considering their rights. And if you're going to build them, I say leave out the pain."

But can robots take the next step and actually be considered human? According to Atwood, one must consider grammar when considering the humanness of something. "My entrance in this category is a grammar that includes a past-perfect tense. Rover the dog doesn't have that. He's got a memory but he's never going to say 'What is the origin of dogs?' And future perfect. Rover the dog is not going to say 'What will happen to me, Rover personally, when I die?"

But being human doesn't begin--or end--with language. Creativity is also involved. Take a look about how we think about and create robots, and then worry about what they might do in the future. Writers, including Atwood, do this all the time when creating futuristic worlds.

"Sometimes we imagine things so we will not do them. That's what dystopias are about," Atwood said. "On the [other] side of this, let's say you can make the world better, that's where you'd get the utopias." Atwood says that dystopic futures cannot be separated from utopic ones. "We can't imagine things being better without having an idea of what worse means."

The ability to imagine what the future looks like--for better or worse--is what makes us human, Atwood said. "A human being is somebody who imagines those things."