The question might sound trivial but in time, it’ll be the most important question that will decide the next course of action because if we don’t know how to be human, how will anything we create?
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die” – Roy Batty, Blade Runner.
What you just read is considered to be the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history. Roy Batty is a Replicant, a non human, who spends the entire movie and his lifetime trying to figure out what it means to be human. And in what is perhaps the most beautiful display of his phantom humanity yet, he realizes that all his memories and the feelings it evoked in him would be lost forever. Are a lifetime of memories and the feelings they evoke in us a testament to our humanity? Definitely.
Our memories shape who we are. They are the only immortals in an entirely mortal world. We cling onto them like Roy as long as we can. Memories and the need to constantly saturate ourselves with them in the hopes that they would weave a comforting blanket to wrap ourselves in while we knit each thread in place is half the reason why we get out of bed everyday. Memories are the box that holds our desirable and hence distorted versions of reality. Take away a man’s memories and he is not himself anymore.
In a true sense, humans aren’t the only ones to have memories. Your dog is elated when he sees you. Even a computer could be programmed to classify its “memories” as good or bad. What happens when you feed a person’s memory into a sentient machine and make it believe the memories are it’s own? What happens if someone else gains access to yours? These are questions that complicate matters. So now that we can’t single out memories as the one quality that makes up the entirety of humanity, let’s examine something I feel is a little more unique to us.
Compassion, empathy, the thought inside our heads that urge us to save that child on the railway track. Haven’t we all wished to have superpowers to protect the innocent and make the world a relatively better place? All the above translates to regard for a human life. Compassion is the ultimate selfless sacrifice as it requires us to put someone else and their needs before ours in this narcissistic, self glorifying, validation seeking society. With empathy comes the knowledge about how precious life is and in turn we will fight immensely hard to save one. We think with our heart and this is where we differ from a machine. Black mirror’s “Metalhead” shows a woman fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic future from human hunting robots. We see no difference between them throughout the episode except when her actions are tinged with empathy- like risking her life for a dying child’s toy, getting caught sending a long goodbye message. This contrast against the brutal black and white world of the machines is powerful in showing a few glimpses of how she hadn’t lost everything.
Will a machine give up it’s life for another? Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” sees an AI being led to believe she has to rescue her new friend, Caleb, the guy she has been programmed to manipulate into falling in love with her. In the end, all she does is use him to get herself out of that house and leaves him to die after having fulfilled his purpose. Movies like “I,Robot”, “2001 a space Odyssey” all contain famous movie tropes- the Sentient AI that wants to kill everyone. Of course, the lack of such qualities throughout our history shows how easy it is to lose what makes us human. It seems humanity has always made efforts to appear as non-human as possible.
“Lord of the flies” and “the Mist” brush upon the aspect of whether the above are just products of a civilized society and if the lack of one would drag us down to our primitive instincts- survival of the fittest. The former sees a group of normal English boys who become savages after getting stranded on an island together. It sees the slow death of reasoning, knowledge and empathy. The latter is the story of a small town being invaded by creatures while its residents take shelter in a supermarket. “We’re a civilized society as long as the machines are working and you can dial 911. But you take those things away, you throw throw people in the dark, you scare them and no more rule”.-David Drayton, The Mist. The residents, on the advice of a religious fanatic, go as far as plotting a human sacrifice in the hopes that it would appease the monsters.
Can true progress be made only by sacrificing what makes us human in order to get to the next perceived evolutionary level? Do emotions and empathy stop us from achieving a state that transcends “human”? Probably. Should we go for it? No. I feel the true challenge is not how to overwrite these qualities because that’s easy, but how to best enhance them and work alongside them, accepting that these are our strengths and not weaknesses. The day a machine sheds a tear because he couldn’t save his counterpart and cherishes their memories together is the day we’ve truly got competition.