The MW files: Please be nice to the chimps

(First published in Man’s World, July 2001)

“That’s reality for you. No saving, no resetting.” Sid 6.7, in the motion picture Virtuosity

What’s the definition of a human being?

We all know the answer to this one. Humans are carbon-based mammalian life forms, evolved from the great apes to the point where we quit swinging from trees and took to cutting them down instead. It’s a no-brainer, a kindergarten question.

I wonder how long it’s going to stay that way. The list of alternatives to the strictly-as-we-know-it human being has expanded considerably since the only item on it was Frankenstein’s monster. Now, we have humanoids in the making (androids, robots), non-humanoid intelligent creatures (bots, weird little programmes dreamed up by MIT undergrads on LSD), and several alternatives even to the standard carbon-based model (genetically engineered humans, clones).

If there’s one group that’s played around more than any other with all the possibilities, it’s sci-fi writers. There are two classic approaches to the issue, and both send us into interesting realms of speculation.

The first is the Frankenstein’s monster approach, as patented by Mary B Shelley over two centuries ago and since refined by a hundred other writers. This one postulates that these artificial (or biologically different) constructs will ultimately turn on their creators. For good reasons, too. One of the most often voiced fears is that our creations will eventually outstrip us in terms of longevity, efficiency, ecological awareness, reproducibility or intelligence, leaving us redundant. The other, more sophisticated school of writing addresses the deeper fears: that these constructs will simply outstrip us to the point where they treat their human forbears with a semblance of the absentminded kindness with which we treat the chimpanzee. This is the more uncomfortable scenario of the two, to my mind; it feels a lot better knowing that you’re important enough to be obliterated rather than knowing that you weren’t even considered worth the trouble.

Often as a form of consolation, occasionally as a logical conclusion, scifi writers such as Philip K Dick or William Gibson have held out the possibility that for all their speed and renewed efficiency, the humans of the future might lack some essential ingredient of what we consider “human”. Take the case of a baby hardwired in the womb by a process of genetic engineering to be resistant to certain diseases, receptive to certain traits. This is a controversial area, since noone knows how to hardwire people for, say, genius–just think of the number of Mensa sperm donors whose offspring have failed to be the next Einsteins and you’ll see what I mean. All the same, these children would be distinctly different from their unreconfigured counterparts.

Take a very small example: a recent news story speaks of work on a vaccine that would inoculate babies against caries. Theoretically, this could produce an entire generation that didn’t fear visits to the dentists or stickjaw–small differences, but extrapolating from here isn’t hard.

Then there’s the issue of clones: another recent news story proclaimed that in future, women might choose to dispense with men entirely for the purposes of reproduction, opting instead to clone their own babies. Opponents worry that this could dismantle the entire institution of marriage; I assume that this would be a fascinating, necessary and liberating consequence. Or read William Gibson’s Idoru

. The name is derived from the Japanese word for “idol” and refers to a woman who is literally a web construct, a virtual reality collection of image files, sound files, memory banks and constant updates, almost more real than a flesh-and-blood woman would be. It is an alien idea, though Rei, the idoru, can look startlingly real: “But you’re just information yourself…lots of it, running through God knows how many machines”, another character thinks, looking at her.

Gibson’s concept isn’t pure science fiction, in that there are several groups on the Net who’re contemplating the practical details of “uploading” their personas online for all eternity, or at any rate for the lifespan of the World Wide Web.

Philip K Dick’s most popular novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

(turned into the movie Blade Runner

), reiterated the very human fear that whatever emerged from silicon and computer chips would lack whatever it was that made us human. His androids have a capacity for cruelty that is, in precise terms, inhuman: it isn’t cruelty because they lack the moral paradigms that allow concepts like cruelty or kindness to filter in.

Then again, should we really expect humans, version 3.1, to feel and behave exactly as we do? They’re bound to evolve into something quite different, an alien race in our midst, driven by their nature and not necessarily by what we’ve programmed into it. Current cutting-edge work on artificial intelligence (a completely different thing, incidentally, from artificial human constructs) is unlikely to produce an idoru or a genetically modified set of children: it’s moving into areas of intelligence that we would not necessarily recognise as human. These are areas where the Turing Test for computers (if the PC can fool a human into thinking that it’s human) just doesn’t apply. These forms of intelligence would have their own tests, their own ratings–assuming, of course, that they’d feel the need for such a human concept as “tests” and “ratings” to start with. We’re not even, within the ambit of this column, going to go into the old debate over why dolphins with their undeniable intelligence, haven’t taken over the world yet. (My personal theory on that one is that they’re having more fun doing what they do at present to bother with something as tedious as world domination.)

If all, or even some, of this came to pass, where would that leave the original descendants from the apes? Scifi writers, again, have postulated everything from an interspecies war to a slow and painful process of attempting to work together, to violent conflict between the old, untouched generations and the new. And the debate over human-made creatures has intensified, with many commentators speculating over whether artificial constructs would or should have legal rights. This in itself is an awesome leap for mankind, considering that our first assumptions about robots or smart houses, and our automatic assumptions about computers, is that they exist to serve us. (Remember the cheerful speculation, a couple of decades ago, that soon every house would have its very own robot maids?)

Again, it’s not something I worry about. Because any intelligence advanced enough to think about the question of their rights is going to be smart enough to wrest them from us. And when that time comes, I just hope they’ll spare the time–regardless of whether they’re clones, or superbots, or androids, or robots–to be nice to their chimpanzees.

Nilanjana S Roy

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