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.