Artificial life/intelligence has been a fascination for many years among artist and scientists but is a relatively new concept. Interacting with artificial intelligence can raise questions about our humanity and what it means to be human. What does it mean to be human in a world that is so deeply interactive with technology? Does artificial life/intelligence and virtual reality help our social interactions and make us feel more human or does it hinder them?
One of the earliest AI artworks was MusicColour by Gordon Pask (1923-1996) in 1953. MusicColour was described by Jon Bird and Ezequiel Di Paolo as a “sound-actuated interactive light show” (187). It was not just a light show but an interactive AI performer. Usman Haque explains, “it listens for certain frequencies, responds and then gets bored and listens elsewhere, produces as well as stimulates improvisation, and reassembles its language much like a jazz musician might in conversation with other band members. Musicians who worked with it in the 1950s treated it very much like another on-stage participant.” (3). Not only did the human performers have to wonder about their human existence as musicians but question the machine as being really a machine. Pask himself wrote “It is, if you like, a much more biological notion, maybe I’m wrong to call such a thing a machine; I gave that label to it because I like to realize things as artifacts, but you might not call the system a machine, you might call it something else.” (Haque)
What does it mean to be human in a world that is so deeply interactive with technology?
“We are dreaming a strange, waking dream; an inevitably brief interlude sandwiched between the long age of low-tech humanity on the one hand, and the age of human beings transcended on the other … We will find our niche on Earth crowded out by a better and more competitive organism. Yet this is not the end of humanity, only its physical existence as a biological life form.” (Rubin)
–Gregory Paul and Earl D. Cox
There is no exact answer about what it means to be human in our technological society. For me, being in control of the technology at my finger tips makes me feel human. Humans create all the interactive technology we use. I have a heartbeat, a conscious, flesh and blood, I breathe, I can remember the past, but will this still make me human when AI can do the same things. Do my body parts make me human? Many of them can be replaced by artificial technology. When every body part can be replaced by better technology and only my brain is biologically human, will I still be human? I would say yes. What if my brain can eventually be replaced with an artificial one that holds all my memories and qualities of being me? Am I still human? In the quote above, Gregory Paul and Earl Cox are saying I would still be human but not a biological form. This brings me to a 1982 science fiction film that asks some of these questions. Blade Runner is a film based on a science fiction novel by Phillip Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). As written on IMDB by Greg Bole,
“Deckard, a Blade Runner, a police man of the future who hunts down and terminates replicants, artificially created humans. He wants to get out of the force, but is drawn back in when 4 “skin jobs”, a slang term for replicants, hijack a ship back to Earth. The city that Deckard must search for his prey is a huge, sprawling, bleak vision of the future. This film questions what it is to be human, and why life is so precious.”(Bole)
The replicants have only a short pre-programmed life span. This is why they come back to Earth from their colony to find a way to extend their life span (They want to live longer like humans do). The Tyrell Corporation manufactures the replicants and on a visit, Decker meets Rachel, a worker and a replicant. Rachel is unaware that she is a replicant. Decker figures out that she is unaware and informs her. She is now on the run and Decker falls in love with her and protects her although he is supposed to terminate her. Throughout the movie Decker is becoming opposed to killing the replicants. The movie ends with Decker and Rachel running away together not knowing how long she is programmed to live. The film leaves the viewer with many interesting questions about humanity and morality. How do we separate ourselves from genetically engineered humans? Rachel is one of the few replicants that has implanted memory of her past. Now that she has a past that is real to her, does this make her human? The fear of dying is a very human trait but the main villain is doing the things he does because he does not want to die. Do we define ourselves as being human just on biological terms or is there something more?
Does artificial life (such as that made possible by digital media) help our social interactions (as humans) or does it hinder them? I believe, in a normal person, (What is normal?) that they do not help them but may hinder them. One personal example is texting. I have many young teenaged relatives and they do not know how to talk to people in an up close personal setting. They all seem so anti-social at functions but they are all texting away, a mile a minute. I have a 16 year-old son and I am constantly telling him to call but he prefers to text me and has much to say. When I can get him to call he does not have much to say and has said on more than one occasion, “Why call you when I can just text you?” I believe different people with different problems may find that digital media may help our social interaction and could hinder them. A good example of digital media that may help and hinder social interaction is the web based virtual world of Second Life. Second Life is an online virtual world. Residents in the virtual world create representations of themselves, which are avatars, and interact with the other avatars. The residents can create many things in Second Life such as buildings and houses. They can also buy clothes, live luxurious lives, live in mansions, and get married. Basically you can create and make an artificial life for yourself. I believe there is bad and good in this type of digital media. For example, if someone that has a handicap and cannot get out of their house much, they can create an un-handicapped life for themselves and experience all the things in life that normal people get to experience. I think someone that has a problem differentiating fantasy from reality could be at harm or put others at harm with this kind of digital media. Sarah Brown writes in an editorial in Therapy Today, “We hear about a group of men and women with severe cerebral palsy and mental retardation who use Second Life to transcend the limits of their realities and experience the kind of liberated existence they could previously only have dreamt of.”(Browne) There are dangers as well with Second Life. “In Cornwall 2008, a woman was granted a divorce from her husband when she found him conducting several affairs with avatars in ‘Second Life’. (In) Second Life sounds fun to me but I don’t think it would alter my own reality. In a January 2008 article in Contemporary Sexuality, Yolanda Turner stated, “Many players also go to Second Life seeking social interaction and emotional connectedness. They often find both. The irony, says Yolanda Turner, MA, AASECT member and Pennsylvania therapist, is that other problems surface. After a point, [some people] become more isolated and even less engaged in the face-to-face world.” (Melby)
Artificial life/intelligence, digital media, virtual reality, and many other artistic media ask many questions about what it means to be human and generally does not give the answers. As long as artist and scientist continue to tread on this path, humanity will be questioned. Ai artist Stephen Wilson may have said it best,
“Artificial intelligence is one of these fields of inquiry that reaches beyond its technical boundaries. At its root it is an investigation into the nature of being human, the nature of intelligence, the limits of machines, and our limits as artifact makers. I felt that, in spite of falling in and out of public favor, it was one of the grand intellectual undertakings of our times and that the arts ought to address the questions, challenges, and opportunities it generated.”(Wilson)
For me being human is having control over the technologies we use and my flesh and blood. Scientists have many different definitions on what makes us human. Here are a few from the many, “Renee Reijo Pera, embryologist: We’re uniquely human from the moment that egg and sperm fuse. A “human program” begins before the brain even begins to form. Marvin Minsky, artificial intelligence pioneer: We do something other species can’t: We remember. We have cultures, ways of transmitting information. Jim Gates, physicist: We are blessed with the ability to know our mother.”(Keim) We must all wait and see to what the future will tell us about being human. I will leave that up to my future ancestors after I have been long dead and gone.