Isaac Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man (1976) follows the 200-year life of Andrew Martin, a sentient robot in search of his humanity. By some anomaly in his positronic brain’s pathways, Andrew is different from other robots in that he is creative and has the desire to learn — quintessentially human characteristics. As the story progresses, Andrew buys his freedom from his masters, the Martins, using earnings made from selling his art. He then goes on to acquire numerous legal rights for robots, all the while undergoing procedures to better resemble a human being. Despite becoming a highly decorated robobiologist and inventor with many people under his command, Andrew is as yet unsatisfied; he wishes to be legally considered human. After a subsequent series of legal battles, most legislators are still reluctant to grant him this label by virtue of his immortality. In a moving and compelling final act, Andrew undergoes a procedure that would cause his positronic brain to gradually decay with time, rendering him mortal. On his 200th birthday, the World President passes a law decreeing Andrew a human. Shortly thereafter, having finally been granted his lifelong wish, Andrew dies a human being.
Andrew’s journey from artificial android to de jure human being calls into question what exactly it means to be human. Should humans in the Foundation Universe, in which The Bicentennial Man is set, be defined by their manner of conception, mortality, the physical substance of their being, some intangible jai ne sais quoi, or a combination of the above? To answer this question, we must deconstruct humanity into its different constituent components and then decide on which are essential. This would allow us to create a clear rubric to distinguish what checks the appropriate checkboxes to be considered human from what does not. In answering our question, we can also draw on lessons learnt from analogies in the real world pertaining to what makes a man. For instance, we can take a look at civil rights movements, in which marginalized groups of individuals are denied their freedom and humanity.
Answering this question will shed light on human dignity and help guide our actions in different ethical arenas, from artificial intelligence to prosthetics and other human enhancement technologies. Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate that biology only comprises one small component of humanity, and that it is a dispensable quality. Rather, our humanity consists primarily of our intangible characteristics, since these are far more integral to what defines us. Drawing from arguments raised by Asimov in The Bicentennial Man as well as the aforementioned lessons from the real world, I submit that the essence of humanity lies not in the fibre of our being but rather in our ability and desire to love, as well as to learn.
In the real world, opponents of loosening the definition of humanity to beyond the biological aspect argue that to do so would be degrading, and consequently would diminish our dignity as human beings. For example, the way notable bioethicist Leon Kass put it was that we ‘need a particular regard and respect for the special gift that is our own given nature.’ On the flipside, philosophers like Nick Bostrom argue that the notion of human dignity need not necessarily be incompatible with what he calls ‘posthuman dignity’, referring to that belonging to entities who have transcended our current biological forms.
In much the same way that posthumanists and bio-conservatives comprise the two sides of the posthuman debate in the real world, the characters in The Bicentennial Man can also be split into supporters and detractors of android rights and recognizing Andrew as a human. In both cases, the latter group consists of traditionalists who subscribe to the flesh-and-bone definition of humanity while the former comprises those capable of conceiving more complicated definitions of humanity. By analysing the interactions between and arguments put forward by both parties in the text, we can therefore gain a more well-rounded understanding of humanity and what makes a human.
Andrew begins life as nothing more than an appliance – an automated domestic servant. However, as his chronicle continues, he slowly gains more and more qualities we typically associate with being human. This begins when his artistic abilities are discovered when he carves a beautiful wooden pendant for Little Miss, the youngest daughter in his master, Sir’s, family, when she is jealous of her elder sister’s ivorite pendant.
From this pivotal moment, we are introduced to three qualities that suggest to us that Andrew is more than just a machine: compassion, creativity and enjoyment, a sensation he describes as the ‘circuits of his brain somehow flow[ing] more easily’. The Martins are the first people to treat Andrew as a human being, going so far as to credit him with half the money earned from selling his subsequent woodwork crafts and furniture. It is with these funds that Andrew later buys his freedom from the Martins, whom he continues to serve voluntarily thereafter.
In the legal proceedings undergone in order to grant Andrew his free status, the judge ultimately concedes in his favour, decreeing that humans had no right to deny freedom to anyone with the cognizance of grasping the concept. An interesting parallel can be drawn here with the history of slavery and the oppression of Africans in America. Originally treated as property just like Andrew, they were similarly later granted their freedom, the inhumanity of enslaving others finally recognized. To strengthen the analogy, Andrew’s manufacturer, U.S Robot and Mechanical Men Corporation, argued against robot rights, since they would make people less likely to buy them. This is similar to the attitudes of slave importers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In our modern 21st century mindset, it is difficult to understand a concept of humanity that allows for slavery. In contrast to our predecessors, we have progressed socially to a point where we cannot fathom a paradigm in which one human being owns another. Throughout the history of man, there have been enslaved individuals. Fortunately, the mindset regarding slavery has changed over time, from seeing slaves as mere property (similar to robots in the Foundation Universe), to understanding their struggles and human emotions. This ultimately led to the American Civil War, fought from one side by people who recognised that it was inherently wrong to deny slaves their humanity.
This comparison to slavery is useful in that is helps put us in the mindset to reframe Andrew, and other androids, as oppressed individuals fully capable of desire rather than simply as inanimate objects, exposing an aspect to them above the mere physical. Indeed, this is explicitly stated when Andrew says that he wants to write a history of how robots ‘feel’. Furthermore, in the final lines of the text, it is revealed to us that Andrew loved Little Miss, with his last waking thought being of her. We can clearly see that Andrew is capable of possessing complex human emotions, and therefore denying him his humanity is akin to denying a slave his freedom. In many ways, Andrew’s struggle parallels that of the slaves, with both being denied privileges and their humanity by their masters. Given this, it would clearly be specious to still view Andrew as simply an object, since he is sentient and has the ability to conceive complicated human notions such as love and freedom.
The next pivotal moment in Andrew’s narrative comes when he begins to wear clothing. In a dialogue with George, Little Miss’s son, Andrew says that he feels bare or naked without clothes. When asked why he would want to cover up his ‘beautifully functional’ body, Andrew counters by asking if the human body is not similarly so, and yet humans wear clothes. Implicitly, Asimov is revealing to us that Andrew is capable of feeling shame. In doing so, Asimov draws a similarity to the creation myth of Abrahamic religions, in which Adam and Eve are made aware and embarrassed of their nakedness upon eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Andrew’s likeness to Adam and Eve goes beyond emphasising his human qualities by showing that he is able to feel shame – it also directly relates to another aspect of his humanity. Andrew was built and upgraded constantly over time to better resemble humans, ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from them. This is analogous to how Man is said to have been made in God’s image in the creation myth. By making this comparison, Asimov is therefore once again reminding us of how we are not so different from Andrew. This is highlighted in one of the later passages in the text when Andrew goes to a surgical robot to have the procedure that would cause his brain to decay over time. The robot initially refuses to perform the operation, saying that it is inherently a harmful procedure and he would be violating the 1st Law of Robotics, which states “a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” By citing this law, the surgeon shows that he cannot tell that Andrew is in fact a robot. The only tangible difference between Andrew now and when he is declared a human being therefore is his immortality.
On this front, bio-conservatives will argue that immortality is a necessary feature to classify one as a human. At face value, this argument seems just; to the best of our knowledge death is a common denominator to all humans that have ever existed. However, with medical advancements and human enhancement technologies, the possibility exists of humans living prolonged, perhaps even indefinite, lives. Arguably, this is already the case. To classify biological sanctity a prerequisite for human dignity is ludicrous when we consider how our biological makeup has changed over time.
The term homo sapiens was coined in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus, also the type specimen of the species. The argument therefore fails when we compare humans of today to humans back then; humans today live healthier lives, have stronger immunities and have much longer life expectancies. If we were to take biology as a key prerequisite of humanity, then by the 1758 standard, since we have undergone so many biological improvements since then, we can no longer be considered human. This is abundantly ridiculous — of course we are still human. In much a similar way, we cannot rationally deny an immortal entity its humanity simply because it is biologically different and more advanced than us. The counterargument is made more robust when we consider prosthetics.
In The Bicentennial Man, the question is raised of whether a man with a prosthetic heart is still considered a human. Published in 1976, the text was written in the same time period as when the first functional pacemakers were being implanted, making this point increasingly pertinent. Asimov argues that if a man with a pacemaker can be considered human, so too can another entity that is composed of a certain number of artificial parts. The argument can be visualised with the following metaphor. If, over time, we replace parts of a broken ship with functional parts such that no original parts remain, does it stop being a ship or does it become something else? Just as no rational mind can argue that implanting a pacemaker removes one’s humanity, neither therefore can we say that an immortal person ceases being a human.
In the text, Andrew is only declared a human after announcing his mortality. However, I argue that even without the procedure, Andrew is already human. The refusal to accept immortal Andrew as human is not an indicator of whether he is a human, since we have already argued that he is. Rather, it is a reflection of people and their difficulty in accepting complex definitions of humanity. At his essence, Andrew embodies the very best of humanity. Those who would say that expanding our definition of humanity to beyond the physical is degrading are wrong; there is nothing degrading in including Andrew among us. He is an extremely accomplished robobiologist with numerous life-saving and life-extending patents and procedures under his belt. He has contributed to humanity’s artistic culture in the form of all his beautiful crafts and artwork. He has contributed to our literature sphere with his comprehensive publication on the history of robots. Perhaps most importantly, he has shown his boundless capacity for love.
The term ‘inhuman’ is often used to describe monstrous people who have done heinous acts of great cruelty and barbarism. Its antonym ‘human’ therefore should refer to those who have performed great acts of mercy, kindness and compassion. When we consider what has distinguished us from other animals and living things in our history, it is exactly our capacity for these complex emotions and innate curiosity that sets us apart. This is what makes us, and by extrapolation, Andrew, human. I submit, therefore, that the essence of humanity lies in the intangible composition of our character and our ability to love, rather than the physical makeup of our bodies.
Asimov, I. (1976). The Bicentennial Man. New York: Ballantine Books.
[Journal editor’s note: This article contains a number of incomplete and unreferenced citations.]