Technology: Self-Aware Machines

“Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”

— Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Pure Reason”, Datalinks

Self-Aware Machines is an eleventh-tier scientific technology that has only one prerequisite: Digital Sentience. This is weird enough that the expansion slid in a new additional mid-game technology in part to serve as the second prerequisite for this technology.

Judging by the gameplay effects, this technology is an interesting extension of its predecessor. The immediate applications of Digital Sentience were all close to home, with the primary one being the ability to adopt a futuristic Cybernetic society. But the most important effect of Self-Aware Machines is to unlock the final two space-based facilities.

The first of these is the Nessus Mining Station. In SMAC, Nessus is the name given to the most important of Chiron’s moons. So these are essentially Golden Age sci-fi moon bases. Except they’re run by AIs because it wouldn’t be worth it to operate such large-scale facilities using humans.

The second are Orbital Defense Pods, which use localized AI to enable them to shoot down incoming enemy Planet Busters. This makes them the gameplay equivalent of the old late-game Civilization SDI project that defends against nukes. They can also sacrifice themselves to engage enemy orbital production facilities or to annihilate a Planet Buster that gets through the defense net.

Additionally, the technology also allows the construction of the Self-Aware Colony. This is a secret project that improves the efficiency of a faction’s bases by providing a handle on a couple of novel parameters instead of providing bonuses on the social engineering screen.

The pattern of all of these technologies is that they embed the new AIs into their own autonomous physical forms. And then they are tasked with accomplishing physical ends. Essentially, the key difference between these self-aware machines and the previous digital sentiences is that these new AIs are embodied.

Hence, the quote. This is the second selection the player has seen during the game from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The player may recall that the first time came when the Secrets of the Human Brain were unlocked. Now, in an analogous fashion, the secrets of abstract cognition itself have been completely understood.

As before, this particular quote is insisting upon the necessary unity between sensory experience and mental activity in any accurate and general theory of mind. Kant considers the concrete and the abstract to be in some sense necessarily and crucially dependent on each other.

This stands opposed to what he calls pure reason. Mathematics might be the best known and most useful class of this kind of reasoning. In math, one reasons solely about new abstractions starting from other abstractions considered axiomatic. In this mode of thinking, one can derive models with all sorts of potentially interesting consequences. But there’s no feedback loop – nothing that pushes back against the choice of axioms – until you start trying to apply these models to phenomena outside one’s head.

In SMAC’s future history, Reynolds postulates that Kant was largely correct on this point. This is why the last breakthrough in general artificial intelligence comes when sentient intelligences are embodied. Only once they’re placed in largely isolated physical systems with their own goals, sensory apparatus, and ability to effect their environment do they develop what humans would recognize as self-awareness.


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