Opinions

How Modern Sci-Fi Sees Humans

     In 1964, a researcher at MIT named Joseph Weizenbaum created the program ELIZA which functioned as an early version of Artificial Intelligence (AI). ELIZA operated on a script which was designed to mirror the speech patterns of a psychoanalyst (responding to almost everything with a question) such that humans interacting with the program online in a chat room could be duped into thinking they were chatting with a fellow human being. Since the year in which ELIZA debuted, the technology of AI has come a long way, prompting recent science fiction to again wrestle with the question: What makes us human? The 2013 Oscar-contender “Her” asks us to imagine an advanced version of Siri, an operating system so fully developed and customized to the personality of the main character Theodore that he falls in love with it (her). Samantha, the operating system, is conscious of her own makeup–the “DNA” of the millions of personalities the programmers drew from to create her–and she says what makes her herself is that she evolves through experience, just like Theodore, except without a body. However, without spoiling the ending, this relationship is ultimately harmed precisely because Theodore exists spatially and bodily in a way Samantha does not, which shatters the illusion of Samantha’s personhood.

     The 2015 film “Ex Machina” takes the ideas of “Her” a step further. In this film, Ava the AI is given a highly realistic body and a sexuality linked to both consciousness and body. Nathan, the creator of Ava, tells the main character Caleb that he has brought him to his lab to test whether Ava is so perfect an AI that Caleb will feel as though she has true human personhood despite knowing she is a robot. While initially Caleb’s intellect continually reminds him that she is not a person, he tells Nathan that when he suspends his analytic thinking, he feels that she is amazing, and soon he too forms attachments with her as if she were a person. The new 2016 HBO show “Westworld” continues these themes in more unsettling ways. In this story, humans (called “tourists”) visit an adult Disneyworld of sorts modeled after the American Wild West. This playground is populated with “hosts” who are embodied AIs even more realistic than what is depicted in Ex Machina and who can be assaulted, murdered or whatever else in an infinite loop because each night their “memory card” is wiped clean, and they are “rebooted” with tweaks in script as necessary. In the second episode, one such tourist asks a woman he is interacting with if she is real, to which she responds, “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?”

     In light of our technological advancements, these stories ought to make us uneasy. If personhood is defined solely by consciousness joined with spatial and bodily existence, what separates me and you from Ava or the hosts? And what is there to keep us from falling in love with a Samantha who is fully customized to be “compatible” with us? And if we can create pseudo-persons, what ought to prevent us from creating a Westworld in which to act out our darkest fantasies?

     As Christians who believe all humans are made in the likeness of God and are thus more than just biological entities, we will have a lot of work ahead of us in thinking through and articulating a robust understanding of persons in a way that also provides opportunities for sharing the Gospel. I think “Her” presents us with one such opportunity. In the film, before Theodore falls in love with an AI, he says that he wanted “to get drunk and have sex” because he was lonely; he wanted somebody who would want to have sex with him because “maybe that would have filled this tiny little hole in my heart, but probably not…and sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel, and from here on out I’m not gonna feel anything new…just…lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” There is a certain kind of existential despair in these words, the despair of a restless man who cannot find lasting happiness even in a relationship with a personable intelligence built and customized entirely for him. I believe that this restlessness and despair is exactly the same as that which St. Augustine wrestled with prior to his conversion, leading him to write that God has made our hearts for Himself and “our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” I think St. Augustine would encourage us to tell Theodore about the One who can truly offer hope and rest for his soul as well as ours.

Source: St. Augustine’s “Confessions”

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