Issue 038 Author Interview: Mary E. Lowd and “Looking for Sentience”

It’s Tuesday and you know what that means — another interview with an author from our current issue, Issue 038! Today we chat with Mary E. Lowd about her story “Looking for Sentience.”

LSQ: The testing of sentience in robots is such a fascinating, debatable topic. How did you settle on some of the rules that Gerangelo refers to when determining sentience?

Mary: I’ve been thinking about sentience since I was a kid and memorized Data’s poem, “Ode to Spot,” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data refers to his cat, Spot, as not being sentient (although, “a true and valued friend”) in the poem, and the android’s own sentience is famously debated in the episode, “The Measure of a Man.” In this way, Star Trek: TNG created a scale from Spot to Data, from non-sentient to sentient. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Here’s what I’ve concluded: I don’t know where the line falls between Spot and Data. But I do know that both of them can express their desires to be treated decently, and if a creature expresses its desire to you — that you treat it decently — then you should. And part of treating a creature decently — it seems to me — is to respect what it knows about itself. If it says it’s sentient, then what right does anyone else have to disbelieve it? This is the entire concept behind the Turing Test — when you can’t tell the difference between non-sentient and sentient anymore, then maybe there isn’t one.

LSQ: Gerangelo has a clear disdain for “organics.” In the world you’ve created in this story, do other sentient robots feel the same way? Or, to ask another way, do you see that as a common reaction once a robot achieves sentience? Why or why not?

Mary: Hah, oh my, this question amuses me, because Gerangelo is not representative of the other robots I write about at all. (Though, he may be my favorite.) Basically, when we program machines to do things, they do what we’ve programmed them to do. In the case of Gerangelo, a young, foolish, misanthropic roboticist programmed a robot to be her perfect soulmate. When she outgrew her snarky phase… he didn’t. And because he was sentient, she couldn’t do anything about it. Basically, he’s a life lesson that just keeps teaching: be careful what you program, because once your creation gets out of your hands, it may take on a life of its own. And in the case of Gerangelo, sue his creator for half of her robot emporium, set up a competing shop across the space station from her, and be a snarky thorn in her side for the rest of her life.

That said, most of the time, when people program robots (or computers, AI, etc.), they program them to serve a useful purpose, or put another way, to be helpful. And so, most of the robots I write about want — at a deep level — to be helpful.

LSQ: The fact that Nancy is an organic, not a robot as Gerangelo has expected, sends a strong message of inclusivity; namely, that anything can become sentient and therefore should be free. Can you comment further on this theme? Did issues in today’s news influence this at all?

Mary: My feelings on this issue are so strong that simple words fail me, and I end up writing stories instead. But yes, the message of inclusivity is intentional, and yes, it relates to so many of the horrors in the news these days. If someone looks different, sounds different, or their body works differently, that’s not an excuse to deny their fundamental rights, their basic personhood. And no, those rights and that personhood do not extend to lumps of cells that have parasitically attached to a uterus any more than they extend to an idea for a computer program, drunkenly scrawled on a napkin at a restaurant.

LSQ: What was your inspiration for this story? Have you written about AI before? Were there any challenges you encountered when writing this story?

Mary: I’ve been writing about Gerangelo and the sentience tests, off and on, for more than a decade. They both first appeared in my story, “My Fair Robot,” which was published at Luna Station Quarterly five years ago. Since then, Gerangelo and Maradia (the roboticist who created him) have appeared in quite a few of my stories and are also featured in a novel that’s still seeking a home. Most notably, “The Three Laws of Social Robotics” just came out in the May/June issue of Analog, and I have a series of six stories about Maradia’s robots upcoming in Daily Science Fiction. However, if readers want something to sink their eyes into right now, I’ve put together a guide to where to find stories about them online here:  http://deepskyanchor.com/robot-stories/

“Looking For Sentience,” in particular, was the result of watching my writing group’s reactions to my previous robot stories. They always wanted to know more about the sentience tests, and so I tried to delve more deeply into the question of what Gerangelo is looking for by showing him discovering sentience where he didn’t expect it.

LSQ: Can you tell us more about being a “furry writer”?

Mary: I never outgrew wanting to read stories about animals, and it turns out that I’m not the only one. Basically, furry fiction is about animals — that can mean anything from Zootopia (where animals replace humans) to The Secret Life of Pets (where we get in the heads of the animals at our feet). It’s kind of a meta-genre, since you can write any kind of story with animals as the main characters — sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, romance, anything. But for some of us, when a story centers on animals, it’s more colorful, more fun, simply a better way to spend your time. So, I write about animals, because I love animals. And it turns out, there are a lot of us, and that’s amazing. I’ve found the furry writing community to be a wonderful, welcoming, supportive place — both as a writer and a reader. Anyone who wants to learn more about it should check out The Furry Writers’ Guild:  https://furrywritersguild.com/

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