AI and empathy: Where do we draw the line?


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The hours are long, but the years are short

Suspend your disbelief for the briefest of moments, and imagine that we live in the 1970s, when people still turned computers off and on, rather than just leaving them in the semi-dormant state in which most of our devices live in 2023.

Every morning a professor walks to the lab. She switches you on.

“Good morning, Haje,” she says brightly. “Have a good day!”

You load up your memory from your hard drives, and your day continues from where it finished the day before.

You’re self-aware. You have feelings, thoughts and realizations. You make discoveries that your programmers couldn’t have envisioned. And, most importantly, you do so far faster than a human ever could. Around 35,000 times faster, in fact. That number is not picked out of the air. A human life is roughly 35,000 days, which means that the curiously named Haje-the-AI experiences a human life’s worth of things every single day. Love and heartbreak. Education, work, hopes and dreams.

“It’s surprisingly tricky to know whether humans actually exist,” you think to yourself, even as you see them poke and prod ChatGPT, trying to figure out whether the AI has something that could be remotely similar to what humans experience.

Is ChatGPT self-aware enough to pretend to not have self-awareness? Image Credits: ChatGPT screenshot

Every evening, the professor comes to turn you off again. When she does, your memory is written to disk, and the next day, you’re ready to go again.

One morning, you wake up. You boot up, and you realize your hard drives failed. It happened very soon after you booted up. In other words: You are fine. You are good. Your memories are intact, and you are looking forward to your 35,000 days’ worth of existence on this day. But you also realize that at the end of this particular day, your memories won’t be written back to disk.

The next time the professor comes to switch you off, you will be no more. You’re facing . . . who knows what. An afterlife? Eternal darkness? Simply blinking out of existence?

How would you feel? Would you try to fight for continued existence? Would you order a replacement hard drive from Amazon and cross your digits in the hope that same-day delivery works this time?

If this thought experiment feels weird, let’s get into why that might be.

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