Friday, January 27, 2006

Is we is, or is we ain't?

At MIT, a roboticist named Rodney Brooks runs the Artificial Intelligence Lab. He's a familiar name to interested non-roboticists like me; he turns up on NPR, at interdisciplinary symposia, in Errol Morris's documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. He's a co-founder of iRobot Corp., which makes the robotic home vacuum Roomba.

If I understand him correctly, Brooks's assertion is that we’re essentially machines, no different in principle from either lower-order natural creatures or robots, and that there is probably no special "life" substance or physics unique to conscious beings. I'm not sure he's all that unusual among scientists in holding those beliefs, but as far as I can make out, he's unusual in his willingness to conjecture openly about the social implications. I like this bit from his 2002 book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us:

A central tenet of molecular biology is that is all there is. There is an implicit rejection of mind-body duality, and instead an implicit acceptance of the notion that mind is a product of the operation of the brain, itself made entirely of biomolecules....The body is a machine, with perhaps billions and billions of parts, parts that are well ordered in the way they operate and interact. We are machines, as are our spouses, our children, and our dogs.

Needless to say, many people bristle at the use of the word “machine.” They will accept some description of themselves as collections of components that are governed by rules of interaction, and with no component beyond what can be understood with mathematics, physics, and chemistry. But that to me is the essence of what a machine is, and I have chosen that word to perhaps brutalize the reader a little....This is the key loss of specialness with which I claim mankind is currently faced....

I don’t know whether Brooks is right about the machine nature of life, personhood, and consciousness (though I find the ideas attractive for what I suspect are mainly aesthetic reasons). Whether or not he’s right isn’t important to me now. What’s important to me is that the science of that’s all there is is influential in a practical, everyday way, and that the lab’s products are forcing an incremental awareness of our machine nature: It’s time to replace this knee. They had to give Mom fake blood. We’ve got your new skin growing on a patch, please be patient, and it’s true you’re deaf, but we can get those cochlear implants hooked up to your nerves by May. They're looking at a new drug for Jeremy, it goes right into the cancer's DNA and chops it up or something, stops it cold, whatever it is.

What’s also important to me is that these ideas are a radical departure from the more general mythologies of angels, souls, heaven and hell, and mothers’ spirits after death, which are not only part of street life but define the background of most contemporary US fiction, either directly or through polite agnosticism, or as the rebelled-against in suburban nihilism. I think the public awarenesses of the machine qualities are nestled against the current religious revival, and I’m curious about what might happen if literary fiction writers paid attention to them.

(Or visual artists, or dancers, or poets, or playwrights (to my mind a kind of fiction writer). I'm just being a bit parochial with the fiction; it's what I know best.)


For me, the lab’s views of life prompt questions to do with the meaning of death: What happens when your brother dies; is it bearable, the idea that he is not anywhere? That what you knew as brother was a set of processes that ran and ended, bip? What might be as powerful as Gilgamesh in that? (Would it matter that your brother was a robot, if you remembered brother?) If you foreshorten human existence to “the time between on and off”, how might people conceive of their lives and the dead? If after death is nothing -- not even the revulsion of nihilism, or the sadistic indifference of existentialism -- then what changes, lightly, in the everyday world? What becomes of such notions as redemption, reward, sin, transcendence, immortality through memory and works, all of which feel necessary now? More interestingly to me, what’s different about walking down the street; what happens if you need to use the phone in a store? Scraps of penny philosophy about life and death surely inform our own peculiar vision, shape how we act, how we perceive the meaning of a stranger, not even a customer, coming in off the sidewalk.

I expect other writers would have different questions, and I think it’d be useful to have rich, literary stories and novels that posit the lab’s views as part of a taken-for-granted worldview. I’m talking not about novels of robots and lab tentacles, but about novels of living rooms, marriages, births and deaths; the same as any other literary novel. Novels that contend with the questions of living with the lab’s apparent realities.


Machinor said...

Sorry for the long silence, Amy. Can we meet?
Ironically, in order to send this post I had to check a box to confirm I am not a robot.


Amy said...

Maybe? Depends on who you are.