Week Seven: Artificial Life

As several other students have already professed, amongst remote sensing, algorithms, and fractals, artificial life is— in my opinion— the most interesting topic assigned for this week. With that being said, artificial life heavily incorporates algorithms and could easily benefit from remote sensing as well. The challenge of creating artificial life has been described by Wilson with the following: “developing algorithms and heuristics to enable computers to execute sophisticated analysis or undertake complex behaviors are among the greatest contemporary research challenges”. If A-life were to be developed to be truly autonomous, one could hypothesize that A-life entities could benefit from using remote sensing (GPS, satellites, RADAR, other sensors), to navigate space.

The successful creation of an artificial human intelligence will open the Pandora’s box of social and ethical concerns. Wilson touches upon a few on page 302 with, “What is life? Must it always be carbon based? Is it possible for humans to create life? Could a computer program be said to be alive?”. Some of the primary concerns that I have about A-life regard personal rights— at this point I cannot use “human” rights because in this reality we are taking computer-based life into careful consideration. I want to know if a living computer will have independence. Will they be free from ownership? Free to work in whichever industry they find appealing? Free to vote? Free to marry other computers or humans? Free to create a new computer life of their own (offspring)? Free to not be murdered/executed (unplugged)? Free to actually be autonomous? Several of these concerns of mine haven’t even been sorted out for biological humans as it is! I already anticipate the “THEY’RE NOT NATURAL” backlash.

One production that addresses this theme well is the “White Christmas” episode of the British dystopian TV series Black Mirror. In this episode, there is a home-improvement service that requires the homeowner to surgically extract an exact copy of their own consciousness and download it onto an egg-shaped processor known as a “cookie”. The homeowner now has a digital, but separately conscious version of his or herself that lives inside of the cookie module that is electronically tied into every component of the home including the heat system, blinds, appliances, sound system, and more. The design was intended to have a home regulation system that anticipates your every need (i.e. wake me up at this time by playing this sound) without having to ever put in the programming work again because a COPY of you is taking care of everything for you and already knows all of your preferences. However, what the audience sees that the homeowner does not see is that the copy of the homeowner is completely autonomous and essentially still a human without biological needs. The copy is now digital and trapped inside the module. The man who installs the system, played by Jon Hamm, cruelly tortures the digital human in order to “break” her spirit and force her into compliance. When the digital consciousness wakes up in the egg for the first time, she is deeply scared and wants out. She wants to resume the life she thought she had been living up until that moment. But because she is a copy and because she is digital, Jon Hamm is able to fast-forward time for the module with the click of a button so that 5 minutes in his time ends up being a year of time for the copy. It is a year where she is trapped in an empty white room with no distractions, no biological needs, and no way to die. After the five minutes pass, he asks if she is ready to work and she begs to be given a task because her spirit has been sufficiently broken. She is essentially a digitally-enslaved human.

Jon Hamm installing the home-improvement system operated by AI.
Jon Hamm instructing the digital human clone to make toast

Filmmakers and television show producers are among the many artists already addressing the ethical concerns surrounding artificial life. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. addresses the love a robot develops for his human mother. Spike Jonze’s Her addresses a romance between a human and an operating system. Chappie is a movie scheduled to be released this year with the plot “Chappie, is stolen and given new programming— he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself” (IMDB). Artificial life is destined to become a reality— only time will tell which freedoms these beings will be granted.

– Rebecca Fisher


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