Gods in Our Machines
By G.B. Gabbler
In Hugh Howey’s August 2016 essay titled “Like Unto Children,” he argues that man should not fear artificial intelligence—a fear expressed in films like: “Terminator, The Matrix, Ex Machina, Robocop, I, Robot, 2001, A Space Odyssey”—but instead welcome its existence, because robots will be like our children. At the best of times, we pity the robot and his fate, often a slave to man or a victim of our choice to bring them to life (I think the film A.I. expresses this latter suffering well). On these standard robot narratives, Howey says it best:
“They all follow the formula of: Man makes machine, machine destroys man. It’s a sci-fi trope. But what if we’re wrong about how we will feel about our creations? I have a feeling it might go much differently. I think mankind will one day go extinct, but that we won’t mind.
Heresy, right? Millions of years of evolution have created an intense drive for self-preservation. The idea that we might willingly be replaced—even replace ourselves—is unthinkable. Except that we do it on a smaller scale every generation. We have children, invest in their upbringing, marvel at all they do and accomplish, all the ways that they are more incredible than we were, and then we move off and leave room for them.”
Howey’s statement is a rarity. Not many go out of their way to dispel the fear of The Other these days, especially when artificial intelligence is so easy to be afraid of because it is the newest possibility looming out there—fresh and on the cusp of being. Not entirely born, but in some ways already existing in our consciousness. A.I. is imminent. If the child analogy is to be used, then this creature is in the fetal stage.
Yet, to some degree, A.I. will never be “born” like a child from a womb. It is more beneficial to look beyond the “like children” justification to alleviate our fears. I would—and do—argue that, when acting as Creator rather than as Parent, it is scarier than having children (though, yes, it is similar to having kids in the fact you never know what you’re going to get—the next Hitler or Malala? News flash, it’s probably a Hitler). However, when acting as Creator, there is still more control—choice—over the end product. What is the bigger responsibility: molding the mind of one child whose mind you can relate to because you have one just like it, or molding a mind so entirely knew you aren’t sure if it should exist?
Cue the playing-God-like-Frankenstein paranoia. Even cockroaches have children and don’t think twice. There is no (what I call) Other involved in having children; in producing more of yourselves. To confront our “Creator anxiety” there is something better than an analogy to children. There is myth.
Let us say Howey’s real argument should set up this binary chain: Old/New, Parent/Child, and Creator/Created. Then, let us say this is the structure behind some of the oldest narratives—such as the Uranus/Kronos myth and on to the Kronos/Jupiter myth. The new gods overthrow their older parents: Uranus is overthrown by his son Kronos; Kronos is overthrown by his son Jupiter; but third time’s the charm and the cycle stops with Jupiter. Not to say that Jupiter doesn’t fear he will also be overthrown (read: swallows his pregnant wife because he has his forefathers‘ same terrors and that’s how we get Athena). The point is the third binary comes into play: he, Jupiter, eventually got over his fear of the new; he is not overthrown. He has more children without concern. Why? Because it was during his generation that the gods created something new other than more of themselves—something else to worry over: Humans.
Man is the Created—the final step before all binaries break down—and the gods enjoy their creation. I’ll not list out all the mortals the gods (especially Zeus/Jupiter) slept with, but there was a blending of the two beings. On one level, gods mating with humans spawned demigods; on another, it was Saint Augustine, in The Confessions, who observed that Homer, instead of assigning “sinful” human attributes to the gods, could have bestowed divine traits to men (so that the gods wouldn’t be such an excuse for humans to get away with things); the qualifications of what it means “to be a god” are not clear cut. Not only do the gods breed and “collaborate” with their Creations, but throughout accounts it gets harder and harder to tell humans and gods apart: Gods come down as avatars in human form, Buddha achieves God-like nothingness, Saints who were once humans accept prayers, Caesars and Pharaohs were gods that could die, and countless other religious and mythical crossovers throughout history… Humans and gods seem more and more like the same thing as we go along.
At many levels, the binary breaks down.
Howey states: “I think science fiction gets it all wrong to cast robots as evil armies. I think they will feel compassion for us, the way we feel compassion for our elders as they wind down toward the ends of their lives. Why would robots need to destroy with lasers what Time is already claiming? And why would mankind need to rise up against what we raised like our own?”
Such a beautiful and true statement. But these questions hinge on humans acting better than the gods did toward man. For example: rape, genocide, suffering. These are what the gods also gave us. I hope we’re eventually better than them. But history repeats itself. We cannot even treat our own fellow-creations—species and races created by the same “gods” as we were—with respect. We cannot trust ourselves to approach robots any differently. But what we can trust is for them to change us. Just as man changed the gods—turned their eyes downward and “watered down their stock”—so, too, will our Creations change us.
Howey claims that it is “easier to step aside when we see how the world will be better under the next generation’s stewardship, and when we see how superfluous (perhaps even a burden) we’ve become.” But I’m not sure will see our burdensomeness. We are too much like the gods that way. Just look at the broken world past generations have left Millennials and Zs with. Climate change, debt, no health care.
But there might be hope. We, just like those that “made” us, will hopefully collaborate with our creations to better ourselves—to reflect ourselves in new ways: Demirobots—A.K.A. cyborgs. Robots will “need” us just as much as we still need/use the gods to understand/psychoanalyze our very core.
Howey addresses immortality in his essay, though only to note it as something not worth arguing about here. But I think that it is. Whether we become immortal cyborgs or merely code in the robot’s memory, we become immortal like the gods. If the myths point us in the right direction, there becomes less and less of “Us” and “Them.” We become “We.”
To avoid “The Gods Need Prayer Badly” trope (which B.L.A. would remind us to avoid), I will say the following: We will not need our Creations; we’ve gotten on just fine without them up to now. We won’t need them to come up with new ways of living for us/taking care of us. No more than we lived for the Gods. The Creator loves and hates their Created—enough to let it change them into something new. But neither need each other for survival. As the Genesis story states, man was created in the image of God. An image reflects. It gives the illusion of a duplicate. And seeing yourself is the very point at which you change. Recognition is cognition. This is also the concept of the story behind the film Another Earth, which is not about robots but about parallel universes, but I will use it as my example just the same. From 2016 Wikipedia:
“Rhoda hears a scientist postulating in a telecast that the citizens of the mirror Earth might be identical to those on her Earth in every way until the moment they learned of the others’ existence. From that point on, the identical people on the different Earths probably began to deviate in small ways, changing their actions. Hearing this, Rhoda realizes that her identical self on the other Earth may not have caused the accident.”
You get the idea. We have two autonomous beings in the gods/humans, humans/robots binaries. They are so similar, but the fact they are similar and see each other will no doubt strike a change in both. Symbiotic at the least, but I shy away from making existence a prerogative for humans. We will not be needed, but it would be a bonus. This argument, however, does not work best for my “breaking the binary by becoming one” argument. I will get back to it then:
A new narrative which intermingles the A.I./ H.I. (human intelligence) binary is seen in Westworld, where robots start to question their reality. Much like how human emotion is arguably chemicals and environment, is A.I. emotion programming and protocol? However, this show still plays into fears of the Other, though on a different level—it is a fear of not knowing for sure when we’ve reached the Creator/Created binary. At least, that’s what season one was for me. How do we know when we’ve become true gods? How do we know when our creation is actually apart from us? How will we know when we’ve created something able/worthy to replace us? How can we be sure we’re not just making copies of ourselves? Because if we no longer doubt that it is going to happen, we still need to be sure of when it does happen.
“Never place your trust in us. We’re only human. Inevitably, we will disappoint you.” – Dr. Ford in Westworld.
The Creator Binary (that I’m proposing) plays out (and can thus be blurred) only when the Creation is seen as worthy or a threat to human dominion. Perhaps this is why we do not argue to the same extent on letting another, current species take over. If it was so easy to “step aside,” we could have done it a long time ago—should have done it a long time ago—with blurring the Human/Animal binary. Beyond breeding ourselves to death, we have screwed over every other species in every way we can. We have made hybrids and new breeds that should not exist (example: the bulldog which cannot even give natural birth). Yet, our playing God with these organic beings has never led us to consider how they might be an intelligence worth investing in—worth handing the world over to—worth giving up our existence for. Allowed to evolve to our level of “intelligence” or enhanced by our own involvement, the closest we have come to making the Creator Binary look like Human/Animal is in stories like The Island of Doctor Moreau, Mort(e), or Planet of the Apes. The handover, if not caused by an accident, is treated as a de-evolution on the human’s part—as if we have demerited ourselves by lifting something “below” us up. As if we’re simply creating golems of ourselves, not something purposefully smarter, more capable, more original; only creating something like us as if to better understand ourselves in the same way vivisection sheds light on “us.” Perhaps this is why we
cannot do not typically claim such “experimentations” as real Creations in this affianced binary. We are only tampering with the gods’ original designs. Just like having our own children, we are only passing on our self-same DNA—the same coding shared with all other biological forms. It is much less guilt-laden to create intelligence from nothing (though scarier with possibility) than to take something that is already there and force evolution/your version of intelligence onto it. I would like to think so.
I would, yes, like to think we as a species are considerate enough to know that what is Created should have a choice in how it exists after it has already been formed—that it should get to choose how it evolves. Let nature take its course.
Though, that is far from what we have done so far. But the guilt we imagine proves that any potential experiments and “enhancements” on animals are not a true Creator/Created binary worthy of The Handover Narrative. It is too much like creating just another child—probing our own self-same organic materials—to be a Creation we can take full credit for. It is not original. It is just practice.
Perhaps another way of saying it is: the binary is only broken when the Created becomes creative. We cannot know what our Creations will invent. We cannot know how we will fit together. But our stories will be the same. We will write ourselves into them. Just like the gods wrote themselves in our consciousness.