I watched the 1982 movie Blade Runner the other night. I think it's one of the great science fiction movies of all time, but don't take my word for it, check out the online reviews. In the world of the future, dangerous work on other planets is done by "replicants," near-human artificial beings; they form an exploited class. Harrison Ford is a detective who must chase and destroy some replicants who have travelled back to earth in order to escape their enslavement. How near the replicants are to humans is one of the main concerns of the movie. The movie re-visits, with a little twist, one of the oldest arguments in artificial intelligence: if a machine demonstrates behaviors that in a human would be acknowledged as "intelligent," can we call the machine intelligent? A lot of philosophers insist that "no," intelligence is the property of humans only, and intelligence can reside only in things that think with wetware, or biological brains. Computers think with silicon and wires and thus can never be considered intelligent.
The little twist introduced in the movie is not over the replicants' supposed intelligence. The replicants clearly are intelligent. The movie even tweaks an old AI argument in one scene when one of the replicants beats its creator in chess. At one time it was said that machines could never play a good game of chess because chess requires insight and intuition, those very high level forms of intelligence, that machines could never possess. What's more, machines can only do what you program them to do, so how can you program something that's better than yourself? Of course, that argument has been settled pretty decisively.
Instead, the movie explores the idea of whether the artificial beings are capable of emotion and feeling. The replicants show a great range of emotion: anger and cunning, loyalty, sadness at the death of one of their group, resentment over the treatment of others in their class, and fear over their impending deaths. In fact, they demonstrate far more emotion than the humans in the movie. Harrison Ford's character is a tough guy detective type who drinks in order to suppress his emotions. His employer shows little concern for him despite his poor condition.
So, the question. If the replicants display what appears to humans as emotion, are they really feeling emotion? If so, do we need to be concerned over their exploitation? Were the replicants emotions something that they were programmed to display, or was this a side effect of having made them so complex? Lots of interesting questions, with no answers forthcoming in the movie. Certainly Ford's detective was affected by the replicants. He feels physically ill at having destroyed one, and it's suggested that the demands of the job are one of the reasons he drinks so much. By the end of the movie, one's sympathies are with the exploited replicants.
What does this have to do with VUI? Besides the obvious fact that the replicants have astonishing speech recognition capabilities (there's not a single "Sorry, I didn't understand" in the whole movie) there may be lessons for those who concern themselves with the design of the VUIs persona. I'll discuss the lessons in my next posting.