Ramblings about the sentience of humanoid machines in a peaceful world.

Recently, I happened to come upon an old manga series named Useless Ponko which I have really enjoyed in the past. It is a story about an old model robot working for his master in a rural countryside while at the same time elsewhere, technology has advanced to the point where highly intelligent machines have become indistinguishable from humankind. Seeing how artificial intelligence has become more and more advanced and accessible in the last couple of months (yes months, not even years), I think that it would be a great time to pick it up again and have a simple reflection on what future could look like under the eyes of old androids in a non-apocalypse world. So I am here, on the bus back home, rambling about some of my takes on Useless Ponko about the meaning of life for a sentient machine and hoping these thoughts would reach you one day and hopefully encourage you to pick it up and enjoy it just as I did. And without further ado, let us begin.

Before we get into our first subject, let’s review ourselves with the classic three laws of robotics as mentioned in “Three Laws of Robotics” by Isaac Asimov, which are mentioned very early in the course of the series:

  • “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
  • “A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.”
  • “A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”

All three subjects we look into today did violate one or more laws mentioned above in exchange for their free will, or at least what they think would be right for them to do. Another thing that needs to be taken into consideration is that because the production of such humanoid machines had stopped sometime in the past due to ethical reasons, it is very rare for one to be spotted in society. Okay, now we can begin with the first one: Taro – the farmer robot who takes care of the crops by his own will, without a master.

Long story short, Taro used to be a military robot who was made for wars, for taking lives, and for being thrown away. It is not his fault to violate the first rule but rather his creators’, who ignored the existing framework for their greater gains (not necessarily bad, because we don’t have much context regarding this war). In this case, he was being treated by his creators to be a weapon rather than a sentient machine, which he cannot defy.

He got thrown out, damaged, and got rescued by a couple of old farmers while drifting on a river. There, being freed from his battle bot duty, he embraces his life farming along with the old couples, even after their death. He has found his own way to spend the day doing what he wants, now what he is ordered to – an answer to a long journey of a robot. Given the choice, he chose to create, not destroy; to care, not kill; and be sympathetic, not savage. In this case, sentience in the long run gets bestowed on him as a gift, not a burden. It allows him to look for his path that he wasn’t designed for, and help those who looking for an answer like him when the time comes.

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The killbot is in the past, now Taro with his new granted name finally found a happy ending for his own.

Now move on to the second one: Ponko’s sister – a rogue robot who is fulfilling her late master’s will as well as finding an answer for herself. She is not made for warfare like Taro, but rather as a caretaker robot like our protagonist Ponko. Caretaker robots like them work on a contract basis, and to protect all the confidential data of the customer, their data and personality will be erased and reset to a new beginning after a job, thus they won’t have any attachment to their own lives of service whatsoever. We can all agree that this may be brutal for a machine with sentience, but it is necessary for the safety of humans especially when their data can be processed anytime. That should be the case for her as well until she got entrusted a notebook by a young lady on her deathbed to fulfill all the things she wants to do after her death. Is this just a selfish request from someone who is about to die, or a chance given to Ponko’s sister to break out from the endless loop of memories reformatting to end up at the junkyard? We cannot know anymore. But the impulse is strong enough for her to break the second rule of robotics and fled away with the notebook to fulfill the will of her late master; as well as look for an answer of happiness herself.

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When she find out what awaits her at the end, would she be happy?

In this case, I am not sure if this newfound level of sentience would be considered a relief or a curse because, unlike Taro, she is still stuck with the mission to fulfill everything in the notebook for someone else, not her own free will. She could have kept her ignorance about the world and been “happy” servicing humans as she is designed to be. This is quite different from Taro. I may be wrong, but there was no evidence that Taro is also designed to be happy fighting to the death, and I don’t think so considering what happened at the end of the meeting between the two, so I will stick with the notion that Ponko’s sister could already be “happy” with what she is designed for instead of having to go on a journey of hardship to find “happiness” that she doesn’t even know exists while her body is broken down and faces an unclear future. Don’t get me wrong, I still want her to find her answer to happiness as Taro did, but that brings me to another question: If we empathize with a machine and wish it to have free will, would we no longer treat it as a tool for human happiness or an individual that we want to cheer for, especially when they have a similar appearance to us? Would it be unethical to recapture her again and continue the loop because it is what she is designed for and she would be “happy” about it until the days she got to break down and become metal pieces; or it would be better for her to be out there to find her own answer of what it means to have free will, and would it come along with happiness as a bonus at the end like a happy ending to a fairy tale or she will be cursed with the knowledge that she would rather not know of? Anyway, her journey is still going on and she is having a fun time with Ponko and Taro occasionally, so I will just look forward to seeing how this turns out.

Finally, we get to the final individual: Our protagonist – Ponko the maid robot. Among the three, she would be the one who still hasn’t broken out of the three rules much (I won’t say much about what happened on this to avoid come critical spoilers) but is showing signs of doing so. What sets her as different from the previous two is that she still has a master to obey, and her master and the people around him care about her immensely. As a result, she still retains her life goal of being useful to humanity as a caretaker machine, and rarely thinks about anything else outside that scope, even with the circle gradually forming around her. This is supposed to be her last task, the last iteration, but she does not have any desire to go beyond that. Although she did show the aspiration to live as long as possible in concordance with rule number 3, she currently shows no burning passions like the previous two. To her, having a good time while being useful to her master and everyone around her as long as possible is good enough, and it is mostly the only thing keeping her mind from breaking down after all those accidents and damage to her physical body. There has been some emotion and selfishness leaking out here and there, and while each of them links to a strong moment in the story plot, none of them is strong enough to break out of the framework like the other two, and often the case, she reflects regretfully on those moments. For Ponko, her sentience is more like a tool to support her work and throughout the story, she feels like a child learning about the emotions and thoughts which she doesn’t know she has. As time passes, she meets new people and their lives slowly imprint on her artificial soul, unlocking more and more experience and giving her a chance to improve herself as not an obedient robot but an individual who is in the progress of discovering themselves; but so far, none of those truly reflect her free will, or at least as strong as the other two. Maybe her happiness and her desire are the same regardless she has free will or not – being useful for others – and she will keep doing so even without a master like what Taro ended up being, but we have to see if any accident in the future can prove that.

If Taro is a tool that successfully found his human way; Ponko’s sister is in the process of finding that while Ponko is still ignorant about those feelings to focus on being useful to her master. They resemble the progress of how sentience in an artificial soul can evolve and end up being if given enough time and stimulus. But those will be the story for the far future, and I probably won’t be the keyholder for that change. These are just some of my ramblings on what I feel about those three characters, and I hope you would also enjoy them as I did. Thank you for staying with me until this point, and may we meet again in the future, hopefully, a peaceful one.

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Three robots, three different lifepaths, under the same sky.

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