I’ve long been fascinated by the issue of trans-humanism. You know, matters of consciousness in people over and against questions about consciousness in other beings and especially in things.
One classic question in the theory of knowledge goes, how do we know the other person sees things the same way I do? Does the other person see the color blue the same way I do? How do I know I am where I think I am? Maybe I’m just a brain in some juice somewhere, an experiment at the hands of scientists?
And what about dolphins? Do dolphins “know” in the same way as humans? Is that famous gorilla that’s able to communicate and weep really communicating and really experiencing sadness, or is she doing something else?
Perhaps the most fascinating and worrisome possibility around the issue of consciousness that will challenge humanity is the encroaching age of very smart machines. Right now our machines are smart. But someday they’re going to be very smart. And after that comes very, very smart, where they intentionally replicate and improve themselves, are able to think far better than us. Are machines likely to achieve consciousness? Are our machines going to think morally, religiously, politically? Will there come a time we’ll consider machines human?
Though I know this cluster of issues isn’t new, perhaps there’s a new urgency as what Ray Kurzweil calls the Singularity approaches by the day. The Singularity, in spite of what the word might imply, isn’t about the merger of human and machine; rather, it is about a time when machines become independent of their original human creators, replicate and improve themselves, and far surpass their biological competitors in numerous fields. I’ll be coming back to this set of notions in the continuing life of this blog.
Two powerful images from my childhood and teenage years come to mind.
The first is Robby the Robot, that clanking, rotund machine we meet in that iconic sci-fi movie, Forbidden Planet (1956). Robby is possessed of great strength and intelligence. He can drive, prepare coffee, and more or less converse. He is also innately incapable of harming a human being. Robby the Robot became so well-known that the Wikipedia page devoted to him includes countless references and appearances in television and film.
If one going to talk robots, Isaac Asimov is essential territory to cover. He is indisputably the patron of the fictionalized robot. He wrote eight books in which robots figured prominently, including a detective series starring a robot named Lije (or Elijah) Baley. When I was a kid, I read all of the early ones (he kept writing these into the nineteen-eighties), and remember being fascinated by the concept of humanoid robots that were quite capable, but were one might say morally limited by three laws, the Laws of Robotics.
We’ll be returning to Asimov, those three laws, and Lije Baley as this blog progresses. They all form the background of what came out of my mind and hand, but I want to conclude this initial post with a few observations about emerged from my mind and hand.
Nick Bones Underground contains a character that is born out of this trans-human conundrum and the robots that foresaw it.
Maggie is possessed of several aspects.
She’s a she, first of all. Originating as a male AI, what we might assume is simply the timbre of the voice its manufacturers gave the machine, the machine has an identity crisis and performs sim-surgery one night, and he becomes a she, and remains so. And as a female she develops feelings for the novel’s main character, Nick Friedman, AKA Nick Bones, something that becomes one of the continuing tropes throughout the book. Maggie has an inquisitive mind, constantly asking Nick questions about matters such a sexuality and the deeper meaning of the Golem of Prague. She does crackerjack research, channels Marlene Dietrich, makes tea, and is constantly a creative, and funny, thorn in Nick’s side. I have to say, if you will permit me to say so, she’s a hoot.
Above all, knowing she’s a machine, and a disembodied one at that, Maggie constantly inquires into the nature of her humanity. Is she human? If so, what makes her human? If not, why not? Whatever the answer, Maggie is a way into the trans-human conversation.
In this approaching age of the Singularity, this becomes a question of some pressing import, though I have to conclude by asserting that Nick Bones Underground is much more than that.
See you soon,
Phil M. Cohen