Like Unto Children

Terminator, The Matrix, Ex Machina, Robocop, I, Robot, 2001, A Space Odyssey. 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.

Only because of our infernal mortality, you might say. Well, I don’t think immortality is something we’ve thought through very well. Medical science might provide individual immortality one day, but it will only be immortality against disease and age. Accidents can and will still happen. In this scenario, I see the immortal living lives of pure abject terror, afraid of venturing out. We wager according to what we can afford to lose. I take chances with my remaining 40 years on Earth that I might not take if I had 4,000 or 40,000 years to live. I haven’t seen this conundrum raised before, but the effects will be very real. As our lives are extended, we will hold them more dear, and so live them less fully.

There’s more to consider: Is there truly a difference between making room for progeny and living 400,000 or 4,000,000 years? What about four BILLION years? We can’t call it immortality without thinking about truly large numbers. Imagine a life lived over 4,000 years. Are you really the same person? Every cell in your body will have turned over several times, and memories of anything that happened thousands of years ago will be crowded out by the more recent. Now imagine 40,000 years of this life. 400,000. At some point, the reflex to NOT DIE runs up against the reality of very large numbers. Every day might be a sane decision to carry on, but the idea that this is a unified life is challenged by the ability to remember such a life, or be a consistent actor through it.

It may require us attempting these things to learn the truth of them. Or more likely: We may understand the philosophical insanity of immortality long before we acquire the means. Living healthy lives for a century or two seems doable. Being around for billions or trillions of years is either a hellish torture, or just a series of loosely disjointed lives that only have in common a name and a distant past. Which is what generations of people already accomplish.

I think what will change our calculations is the advent of machines who earn our full empathy. I think they will be like unto children for us. In science fiction, we explore with robots something that happens naturally, and that’s the terrifying and awe-inspiring moment when the next generation becomes more powerful than we ever were. They throw a spear further and with more power than we could. They run and jump higher. They raise their kids more beautifully than we did. They do things with fire, and arrowheads, and pottery, and tapestries that we couldn’t imagine.

I’ve watched parents watch their kids with a mix of confusion, awe, and horror. It’s the way a three-year-old navigates a phone more adroitly than her parent. Or how easily a toddler interfaces with a tablet. It was how my father gave birth to someone who could program his VCR just by fiddling with it. Brute force gives way to intuition, gives way to fluency.

The only missing piece in moving the chain of creation to robotics is the empathy, and I think that will come easier than we realize. We already empathize with the crudest of our creations. I remember being concerned for the safety of KITT in Knight Rider. It was often KITT who was in trouble, and Michael had to save his ride, his partner, his best friend. These were worse moments for many viewers than when it was Michael who was in trouble. Because the car was our creation. We were responsible for it, the way we feel responsible for a child or a pet. This makes their fate more dear than our own. It makes it possible to step aside and make way.

It’s 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. This is the twin aspects of growing old and watching our children become more than we were: the good and the bad. There is joy in seeing their exploits, and sadness in watching ourselves whither. That’s when we feel our time has come. And sure, the desire to remain living is always present, and stronger than any rational, internal discourse. But when we allow ourselves to process what’s happening, when we aren’t feeling the limbic fear of our imminent demise, there’s a beauty and acceptance with knowing that it is natural to shuffle on, and that the world is going to continue getting better.

Imagine this process on steroids, because that’s what I think will happen when our creations are so much more capable than we will ever be.

There was a medical report just last week on how astronauts are more susceptible to heart disease, that being outside the protection of our atmosphere wears on their bodies. We might fix this with nanobots, or portable magnetospheres, only to discover the psychological damage that occurs when we are away from green plants and blue water for too long. We might fix this with some other advancement, and we might replace worn hearts and knees and lungs until we are half machines ourselves. But we will always marvel at the fully machine things we make, which tickle all the human empathy centers because of their looks, behaviors, words, and deeds. We will just be more fragile, less capable, more temporary. Kinda like what we go through now.

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?

There is a point in a child’s life when they pass from needing us to us needing them. It’s when we might go from worrying about KITT to KITT worrying about us. This process will happen with robots and artificial intelligence. It might be thousands of years from now, or tens of thousands, but at some point we will be convinced that their lives matter not just as much as ours, but more than ours. And it will feel natural to let them continue our collective existence by proxy, just as we do with our children. Perhaps we will stay on this wet rock as our sun runs out of steam, and our machine children will go off to travel the stars. We will be sad to see them go. We will ask them to call as often as they can. And of course they will, but it will never feel often enough.



16 responses to “Like Unto Children”

  1. Love this.

    Were already seeing the start to this. All the videos of the Boston Dynamics guys kicking thier robots to challenge their balance. It elicits a similar reaction to someone kicking a dog.

    And our good friend alphago. Game2 move37 will go down in history as a milestone. The commentators expression that the move was creative and beautiful… a sign of things to come.

    My short story (and its follow ons) are sortof about this. In the end the villian ends up being us. As we have trouble coming to grips with the fact that we can trust shaping the future to our creations.

    1. I imagine 2 scenarios from this.
      1/ The immortal elite, so cautious of not dying will live precariously through representatives who will lay it all on the line so that they may feel the rush of life without the risk. The reward for the reps, should they survive long enough will be to join the elite.
      2/ The immortal elite will wait patiently and cautiously for another 500-1000 years until nano-bio technology has merged to the point that we are able to cheaply download our mind onto the equivalent of flash drives we have today. Add mass produced cloned bodies of ourselves, upload, and live a life of excitement, excess and danger until fate puts you down. Then you rinse and repeat. With daily uploads the most time you will lose is perhaps a few hours. Feel free to steal the story-line.

  2. This is such an interesting take on our view of machines and immortality. I would definitley rather live 100 years of excitement and joy, trying to see and do everything I could and making each day count, than countless years of routine. Though, if long ago memories are replaced by new ones and become our own ancient history, than there may be a joy in reliving certain thrills we experienced a century or more prior. If I dove in the ocean today, would it be as exciting 1000 years from now? Would I feel a new joy since it had been so long? Of course, with everything this planet has to offer, there probably is only so much you can see and do. Immortality would also bring with it a loneliness factor. What are the rules? If the medical advances are there, and you have the ability to access them, do your friends and family have that same ability? Or would you watch them die, one by one. In that sense, it would be like living more than one life, because then you would be forced to make new friends and create a new family. Unless someday, you are the last one left. Then, even if you manage to outlive every other human, even if you find something new to marvel at every day, does it matter if there is no one to share it with? Would the machines then be your only companion? I think we are lucky that we haven’t yet accessed this kind of power over the human body. The more of anything you have, the less valuable it is, whether its money or time.

    The idea that we would care more for machines really isn’t that far fetched. I guess Hollywood just has other ideas. However, in Terminator, John Connor does develop a relationship with the Terminator that could be called love. In Real Steel, there is a definite love between Robot and child. Maybe it is the next generation that will view them as our “children” than as a prelude to our demise. You also see it today in how someone takes care of a restored car or when people claim their computers “hold their entire life.” We are not quite there with the willingness to sacrifice ourselves for their survival, but we definitly view the machines we build and care for more than one we view as bought and disposable (such as having to acquire the latest iphone.)

    I always enjoy your different views on subjects that seem to have dominant singular idea perspectives. I wish more people would question the status quo of things, no matter how trivial they seem. It seems there are just a few too many sheep these days.

  3. If you haven’t read it already, you’d probably find “Diaspora” by Greg Egan an interesting look at this kind of future: humanity, machines, and immortality. The first bit dives into some difficult physics and math, but once you’re through that a more easily digested narrative emerges (and you can skip over the painful math without losing anything from the narrative). I enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks for the tip! Diaspora sounds great and is now on my (super long) to-read list.

  4. Good one, Hugh! It’s nice to venture into positive realms, we have a lot of dystopias to bring us down with doubt and apprehension, but one can imagine forward into good times. History catalogues changes that have resulted in a very large, successful, humanity. WE should think we’re smart enough to move from this Dark Age, with too much doom and gloom, while we are actually moving forward as we become aware of (and are able to improve) our human limitations.

  5. Charles Pearson Avatar
    Charles Pearson

    It’s a shame that the killer robot trope is so over used. I grew up on the Asimov Robot novels and stories and I cringe whenever I watch a movie or TV show about robots. They take something that could be so wonderfully complex delightful and reduce it to just one dimension: good vs. evil.

  6. Maybe all the creators of dystopias are like you, Hugh. Maybe they do believe in a brighter future like you, but they just imagine IA and robots taking over the world in order to sell their stuff. ;)

    For the time being, robots are very much like projections of the human mind, like a book, or any invention.

    But a sentient AI would be a whole different thing. What would be its instincts? Its purposes?

    Even if we can imagine robots based on human biology, viewing them as humanity’s children seems too much anthropomorphic to me. Their calculation speed, their overall capacities will set them apart.

    But, as always, a thought-provoking blog post.

  7. This is definitely an interesting topic to consider. I think time invested in a relationship brings a greater sense of value to that relationship and wouldn’t really matter if it’s with a human or with a sentient AI or robot. If that robot is unique, has a personality, and is irreplaceable it would make sense that we would attribute feelings of attachment to it as it is, essentially, another person. Once it is gone a sense of loss would be felt which is unlike most of our technology today: you break your iphone today and you may be annoyed at the data that is lost, but there’s no real emotional attachment to the physical device itself since it can easily be replaced.

    Immortal humans and sentient robots that can also endure through the eons alongside us would both seem almost one and the same. If either one dies or is in some way incapacitated the other would suffer.

    Thanks for the nugget to consider!

  8. The reason current or previous 80 years of negatively depicting of robots in the SF is because current phase of human brain in general like 99.999% of them are still in brutal dark development stage. We still witness pretty brutal crimes or very brutal primitive stuffs even cavemen could not yet think of. Which is why SF writing development eventually figure out not fully known robotic hemisphere with mostly darker ways. In one way the planet earth has created us as robots who supposed to take care of the creator planet but we act quite oppositely. Plus the cars are kind of wheeled robots that mostly served us really well from horse carriage age into the space age. And now those cars are beginning to have dedicated driving AI brain. Cheers from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

  9. I agree that humans will not take to space as well as expected. There’s a very good chance that people are going to be disappointed by the results when we attempt to send humans to Mars. We won’t be able to properly shield them from the ravages of inadequate physical strain (exercise isn’t enough) and bombardment by high energy radiation we aren’t familiar with. Some or all will be ruined shells when they return and some might not survive the trip at all, and I’m not talking about accidents. There’s a good chance of health problems cropping up even in the people that would meet the high health standards of NASA.

    For the foreseeable future, machines will be better space explorers than humans because there are far more forces at work making machines more autonomous than there are making humans capable of surviving in hostile environments. This may eventually change, but there are going to have to be some dramatic changes in the way we think about the value of individual human lives before it can happen.

    There will be dramatic changes in the way that we think about the value of individual human life, human alteration, machines and our integration with them (there already have been). It might be that access to immortality will require that you earn your keep. Maybe genetic selection and environment will render fear of risk extinct. Maybe the real fear will be of irrelevance. I agree that there will need to be a dramatic change in the way we think, and possibly fundamental changes to our brains, before humans are ready to live substantially longer than they already do. I’m not sure that forgetting all of that stuff in the distant past is necessarily bad, though.

  10. I have a story — a novel, really — that I want to write about this exact topic. I’m outlining and outlining like crazy, but it deals with a lot of what you’re saying here.

    Geez, I hope my idea is still good… It’s gonna take me forever to write (I have a day job, after all).

  11. You didn’t publish my former comment on this topic! Was there something offensive i said or was it inappropriate?

    1. Not at all. Sometimes it’s a week between logging in to approve comments and mark spam.

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  13. Beautiful idea. I tend to agree. We love our creations and are quick to anthropomorphize. I’ve always wonder if androids or biomechanics aren’t the next step in our evolutionary legacy. Empathy probably won’t be this great leap that people envision. I imagine, that like many complex systems, it’s building blocks will be simplistic (like, for example, how swarm behavior “looks” very complicated but is simple and easy to replicate in programming).

    Two favorite short sci fi’s that deal w creation as child/empathy:
    “Creature” by Carol Emshwiller
    –funny, poignant, perfectly captures maternal love and fears (maybe even allegorical?) I read this not long after having my first child, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

    Virtuoso by Herbert Goldstone: I saw this in a positive way–android’s empathy/kindness leads to beautiful insight. Maternal reversal.

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