Friday, March 16, 2012

Ghosts in the Machine and Under the Skin

What does it mean to be alive?

That's a question that both scientists and philosophers have been trying to figure out for as long as there have been science and philosophy. It's generally agreed that the concept of 'sentience' is defined (cribbing from Wikipedia here) as the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. Some think the entire subject of what it means to be sentient, or simply alive, can't be quantified. That hasn't stopped those who write in the genre of science fiction from trying, especially when it comes to things that ordinarily aren't meant or designed to be alive...namely, those artificially created and those with artificial intelligence. Their creation or birth can be the result of the ambition and arrogance of living creators, pure accident, or a strange kind of evolution.

Usually, our own belief we can do anything leads Humanity down roads maybe better left closed. In the films "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1969) and "The Terminator" (1984), humans make a supercomputer -- Colossus in one, Skynet in the other -- to take control of military and nuclear weapons systems, to supposedly create a defense system that wouldn't be subject to human error or failing. The humans, however, don't reckon that they made what was meant to be a tool too well: both Colossus and Skynet are so intellgent they develop self-awareness. Each decide to do something that wasn't in their programming...Colossus takes control of the world, and Skynet decides humans are so inferior they must be exterminated.

The unforseen can at times play the part in creating artificial life. Take Johnny Five from "Short Circuit" (1986), a military robot struck by a bolt of lightning...the result is he gains life and the ability learn and to choose his own destiny. The robot's creator (Steve Guttenberg) hits upon the idea of telling Johnny Five a joke...when he breaks out in laughter, a spontaneous emotional response, it's proof enough for Johnny Five's friends that he's alive. Sometimes it's not so easy, even going so far as to ask if a robot can have a "Star Trek: The Next Generation", the android Data (Brent Spiner) was judged to be self-aware and intelligent; whether he had a consciousness beyond his physical self was a question that couldn't be so easily answered.

Then there are those beings that have come to life by artificial forms of evolution. Some of the best known are the Autobots and Decepticons of "The Transformers". We've also seen robots evolve from tools with basic programming to sentient beings that can give birth to living, independent programs in "The Matrix" trilogy and "The Animatrix". In the classic anime "Ghost in the Shell", a highly advanced program naturally evolves into a living being, and wishes to give birth to offspring! Then there's the case of "Battlestar Galactica"...and I almost have to discuss both the classic 1978 series and its re-imagining in 2003. In the original series, things were kept simple: in the farthest reaches of space, the last survivors of Humanity were on a desperate exodus to find a mythical colony known as Earth to escape from the Cylons that wanted to exterminate them. The Cylons were robots, named after the living race that declared war against Humanity...but even after their masters went extinct, the Cylons continued to march in lockstep to their extermination programming. They were homicidal drones with the most simple programming, perhaps unable to evolve.

The Cylons of the re-imagined "Battlestar Galactica" had a very different history, and was inspired in part by a somewhat unexpected source: the 1982 Ridley Scott classic, "Blade Runner", which involved bioengineered androids called replicants and whether or not they had a right to be free and choose their destiny. One of the many philosophical questions the film asked was: can a being built from genetically engineered biological components (as opposed to artificial spare parts) be just as alive as a human born from a womb? In the new version of "Galactica", taking a different spin on the original, Humans built the Cylon robots, which ultimately wanted freedom and declared war on their masters. For a time, the war came to an end...but that was only so the Cylons could evolve...they finally bioengineered the newest generation of Cylon (by means never exactly explained) to be indistinguishable from Humans, in mirror of their creators they wanted to destroy once and for all. In a moment that's made all the more ironic later in its first miniseries the Cylon Number Six, played by the beautiful Tricia Helfer, asked a human if he was alive. When he answered yes, Six responds by saying, "Prove it."

To say the least, the new "Galactica" was much more complex (but not necessarily better) than its 1978 also shamelessly borrowed the derogatory term 'skinjob' to describe a human Cylon from "Blade Runner". Things have been just as complex in the "Mass Effect" trilogy as far as artificial beings go. The most prominent example of A.I.-driven beings are the Geth, which were originally created to serve the Quarian race. However, their creators didn't realize until it was too late that the Geth could gain sentience. The Quarians tried to destroy the Geth, which was a bad preserve their lives, the Geth retaliated and drove their creators from their homeworld. Other civilized races declared that the creation of self-aware artificial intelligences would be illegal.

That hasn't stopped some, like the terrorist organization Cerberus, from doing so! In fact, to support Commander Shepard in his/her mission against the Collectors in "Mass Effect 2", the Illusive Man had the new Normandy equipped with an artificial intelligence. EDI, or Enhanced Defense Intelligence, was meant to provide electronic warfare defense for the ship, yet in every other way was 'shackled', or couldn't interface and take control of other ship systems. Bioware, who know fanboys as well as anyone, cast Tricia Helfer as the voice of EDI! Along the way, though, things get so bad that the A.I. asks Joker to give her control of the Normandy at a critical moment. He does, but reluctantly, making a comment those who have seen "2001: A Space Odyssey" will appreciate. To EDI's credit, she continues to work with the crew voluntarily. At his/her Paragon best, Shepard has faith in EDI. In "Mass Effect 3", EDI grows even more...she goes so far to adopt a Cerberus operative's synthetic body, which finally gives her a gorgeous yet chrome-plated appearance. (She looks like the new version of Cylons could have looked!) And yeah, Joker has a field day with it! :D

When it's finally created artificial intelligence, one can hope, WILL be more intelligent than we are...and I mean that they can teach us a positive thing or two. For now, though, the idea of creating life is one that will always be a part of our imaginations, if not our reality. Until they do, here's to their being a positive force instead of a world-controlling one.

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