One of the standard sci-fi scenarios of many books and movies, including the recent TERMINATOR: SALVATION, is the inevitable self-awareness of a massive computer. Countless superconductors reach a kind of critical mass, abruptly interacting like the synapses of a human brain. Interestingly enough, the usual result is a grim malevolence that decides to enslave or exterminate humanity.
Although this makes for interesting stories, a brain is far more than a fancy, fleshy computer. From THE MATRIX to BURNING CHROME, human brains are often presented as relatively compatible with computers, such that we often see some kind of adapter that links the two, allowing the flow of information one way or the other. From the little I understand of artificial intelligence research and the details of the human brain, suggesting such a parallel is a drastic underestimation of the brain.
But here’s my main point:
I recently discussed the book DANDELION WINE with a group of young people. This is a great book by Ray Bradbury about the Summer of 1928 as experienced by a twelve-year old boy named Douglas. One of the key moments at the beginning of the book is when Douglas suddenly realizes that he is alive. He becomes acutely aware of his surroundings and of life in general. The rest of the book deals with Douglas experiencing life with this heightened perspective of his existence.
Our discussions included whether or not such an epiphany was realistic. No one could really remember ever coming to the same realization as Douglas. No one could really recall thinking “I’m alive” as Douglas did.
Shortly after that, I discussed a non-fiction book called AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH with another group of young people .The issues at hand surrounding this book was the real possibility that we are losing our ability to think clearly—a kind of stupor provided by the dazzle and flash of our television screens.
So here’s a thought.
While movie after movie presents the eerie scenario of our technology “waking up” and taking control, maybe the real horror is going on quietly in real life. What if the real danger isn’t that machines are becoming “self-aware”? What if the real scary story is that none of us are capable of becoming “self-aware” anymore? Surrounded by machines that begin to act like humans, humans calmly become more and more like machines. And strangely enough, if this is really true, then even if we admit this, most of us won’t care.
But just in case it really is happening, then let me go on record.