Just Code: Digital Consciousnesses, Artificial Lifeforms, and Ethics

“It sits there looking at me; and I don’t know what it is. ” – Captain Phillipa Louvois, Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of a Man”

Data’s Positronic Brain

In Science Fiction, the idea of sentient artificial lifeforms is a long and colorful one. I remember encountering this as a young sci-fi fan with the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” where Data, an android and Starfleet officer, is put on trial to determine if he is Starfleet property or a person at all. Arguments back and forth consume the conflict of the episode, and the final determination is not so concrete as one might think.

But Star Trek is a wholesome universe! In more recent speculative fiction, this argument opens up deeper questions, especially in the realm of the digital self, identity, consent, and ethics.

Hit TV Show Black Mirror has dealt with the idea of consciousness a lot in their most recent 4th season. From references to UN regulations and the idea of consent for a digital body, the question boils down to the sense of self when examined internally versus externally. Is a digital copy a real person? Does it have an identity? Does it have a soul?

Black Mirror, which serves as a great inspiration for much of the horror-tech of the Cold Start universe, of course didn’t invent this conflict. I remember that deep feeling of loss playing Sci-fi horror game SOMA, where the player is in the position of being one of said digital copies. At several points in the story, this consciousness is split into complete, whole sentient beings. The question becomes: which one is real? Are they both real? Are they people at all?

“USS Callister”

The episode USS Callister (which, ironically, parodies Star Trek) deals greatly with this subject. In this episode people have their DNA harvested and turned into digital clones which retain memories and sense of self-identity despite being only digital copies. To each of these copies, they are real and have the full sense of self and personality that accompanies that identity. to the main character of the episode, Robert Daly, they are playthings he can abuse and torment in his world. Daly’s setup as the obvious bad guy in this episode is easily cemented when he clones in a 6-year-old boy only to toss him out of an airlock.

Let us examine, however, perspective in relation to these sentient beings. The reference to someone being “just code” is a clear message–are they people? Does Daly even consider what he has done to be ethically wrong? Are they alive?

Before you scream out “Of course they are”, let’s put this technology in perspective. If you’re a 90’s kid like me, you owned a Tamagotchi. You cared for it, you fed it, and eventually you forgot about it. It was never alive, and it was just a plaything. It was just a bit of code, existing in a small computer. Now you push the dial of technology a bit further forward and you have games like Dogz and immersive RPGs with complex coded characters like Skyrim. both of these games are different in the way they are coded and the characters inside are constructs made out of “just code”. Are they real? do they have sentience? Are they alive? Of course not. (That said, I am known to apologize before doing bad things to people in Skyrim.)

Molly Frost, Grand Master of the Nihilistium

Let us push beyond the boundaries into Cold Start. In the game it is implied, several times, that the entire Span is nothing more than a simulation running concurrently with countless other simulations. This is the “blasphemous” doctrine of the Nihilistium and its leader, Molly Frost. Assuming that theory is correct, the people within are millions upon millions of “just code” people existing only to serve the Overseer in its endless task to efficiently manage the human race.

The determination of what is and is not alive, and who does or does not have rights is a matter that we slowly inch toward in the real world. Computers become more and more human-like each day, with massively-powerful intelligence engines that, with the power of crowdsourcing, become more and more indistinguishable from people. When do they become alive? And how will we treat them? The ethics here remain open for us to speculate upon.

Judge Advocate Louvois from “The Measure of a Man” puts the ethical grey area of sentience in some of the best terms:

This case has dealt with metaphysics – with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent nor qualified to answer those. But I’ve got to make a ruling, to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We have all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself.

The Cold Start RPG Alpha Playtest is available on DriveThruRPG. Pay what you want or get it free–your choice.