Catherine and I: a post-modern flashback

In the 1980s, Alberto Sordi brought to the screen the film “Io e Caterina,” an homage to what we might call a perfect synergy between existentialism and science fiction: in it, in fact, the protagonist, dissatisfied with his relationship with his wife, decides to buy a futuristic robot with female features, whose role, according to the strict rules imposed by the designers, was supposed to be only that of a tireless and perfect handyman maid.

The irony is that Enrico, played by Sordi, slowly establishes an empathetic “complicity” with Caterina, who, in turn, from being a cold transistor concentrate slowly becomes more and more capable of reciprocating her master’s attention until the hyperbolic finale that reaches its paroxysmal climax in mutual falling in love.

The most extraordinary thing about the film, however, is not inherent in the unbridled imagination of the script but rather in the unconscious thematics that Sordi’s sparkling comedy manages to develop. He, in the dual role of director and actor, transfuses into a millennia-old story of psychological exasperation-the man/woman relationship-a surreal solution but one that possesses all the attributes of a true existentialist escape.

Catherine is indeed a machine, a surrogate of human ingenuity. Still, she is also a potential “center of attraction” for the aberrated sufferings of every man: she is able not only to have emotional states but is even capable of shaping them in the same way as a real human being; this is precisely the most “shocking” element that is still being studied today by various disciplines that are headed by artificial intelligence: the objective compatibility of what is ontologically subjective.

To clarify what has been said, think of the sensation of pain. Suppose I hit my head against a wall. In that case, the tactile receptors in the skull will communicate incipient trauma to the brain, and this will trigger an immediate alarm reaction that, conventionally, we all call pain. But can one be sure that my pain is the same as that of other individuals?

In technical terms, it is said that it belongs to the category of qualia, that is, purely subjective internal states, i.e., experienced only by the subject who harbors them; however, no one would dare doubt that a particular trauma causes the same effects regardless of the person, and medicine is a classic example of this. The problem arises the moment the relationship is no longer between humans but between humans and machines:

Henry and Catherine constitute a heterogeneous whole both structurally and functionally. The former is made of cells and possesses a mind, while the latter is a product of engineering and emulates the possession of a mind; one might ask, then, whether qualia compatibility is in principle extendable to artificial organisms as well and what elements should be brought into play to achieve such a result.

For if imagination places no limits on the virtualization of possibilities, science, from its perspective, is not afraid of those challenges of the intellect (such as flight, space exploration, progress in the nuclear field, etc.) that only time has allowed to be copied into the great book of achievements.

One should not, however, give in to the temptation to steer one’s point of view toward an extreme without first carefully investigating what philosophical and psychological implications a given position requires: the assumption that Catherine can feel emotions is not in itself sufficient to justify empathy with the human world, and likewise, behavioral compatibility, however well-defined, is not necessary either to ground the existence of a thinking mind or to elect the machine to the rank of “cybernetic man.”

There is thus a dialectical juxtaposition between the limits of thought, and it is the task of scientific research to find that point of balance that does not overflow either into boundless fantasy or into an overly restrictive caution of thought; the current state of reality does not allow for a clear definition of what position it is good to take, but the joint effort of thousands of researchers is certainly proof that the romantic vision of the empathic human-machine relationship is not an absolute domain of science fiction or even a utopia destined to become a reality only for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

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