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Tonight my dear husband and I watched a movie called Ex Machina. It is the story of a successful attempt to create artificial intelligence. This movie raises critical questions for humanity. What makes humans human? What, if any, is the essential difference between human beings and other species or robots? How does such a difference makes us weaker or stronger than alternative beings? And how should this difference(s) influence our creation and use of machines? 

This movie clearly showed that the main robot, named Ava, possessed artificial intelligence, including self awareness, imagination, feelings, the ability to reason, mental flexibility, and, most importantly, emotions. One of the protagonists, named Caleb, selflessly attempts to help her with a particular situation, which at the end of the movie leads to his betrayal by Ava. It is revealed that she used him to gain what she wanted, and her inability to empathize with others (at least when she didn’t want or need to) was made very apparent. Contrastingly, the male protagonist was shown to have made the choices he did out of empathy and even selflessness, while having at least some awareness that he was taking a great risk. 

Again we must ask ourselves what is the essential difference between Ava and Caleb? It is not their bodies ( one synthetic and one very human), or their brains (one programmed and one not). What is it then? I believe that the essential difference between Caleb and Ava is the essential difference between humans and non humans. It is what makes our human experience experience so very unique. It is what makes us at once superior and weaker. It is what causes us an immense level of pain, but without which our collective pain would be immenser still. It is what gives us more than an advanced mind but also a soul. It is empathy. That is, the illogical and seemingly unhealthy capacity to put someone else – their wellbeing, their feelings, their happiness, their very lives – before our own. It is so very counter to our other, more “sensible” instincts to do so – yet we can and, in rare and precious moments, we do. It is senseless really. It could even be said that it is in a way a flaw in our evolution, a characteristic that makes our species more prone to peril. After all, such an emotional response depends on fluid feelings. How could that possibly be a good thing for the survival of our species? 

But it is. Without empathy what gives us meaning? Are we here on this earth merely to eat, sleep, mate, reproduce, and die? Just maybe we are instead here to form deep and lasting connections with others that can only truly be achieved by putting some aspect of ourselves at risk. Counter intuitively, doing this is what gives value and depth to our human experience. Science now knows that human beings are wired for connecting meaningfully with other humans. When we don’t do this, something inside of us begins to die. A part of our soul withers. We lose our meaning and our joy. Biochemically speaking, the very makeup of our brain’s chemical balance is changed.

It is only when we begin to imagine ourselves in the other person’s situation that we see that they are as feeling and special as we are. We see ourselves mirrored in them as we find their humanness. And when we find them, we find ourselves. 

What might today’s world be like if we took an illogical leap and put ourselves at risk in some way to empathize with and understand our fellow humans?

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