It is in our very selves that we need to see the danger, not in our technological creations.
The specter of transhumanism is haunting most of our world. Coupled with globalist ideology, it aims to erase the difference between man and machine and perhaps even claim the superiority of the machine over man. These days, we increasingly see more things about AI, or artificial intelligence, and how the human will be overtaken by the machine. We are also told that such machines will become sentient with free will. But this free will almost always result in manipulation, domination, and destruction.
These dark and dystopian visions can be frightening. They can even render us powerless, but that would be foolish to submit on our part. Is it all just the stuff of science fiction and fantasy, or is there any merit to our fears?
Questions of transhumanism have been the subject of many films. We have been exposed to this subject for almost as long as cinema itself has existed. Throughout the decades, we’ve watched dystopian and futuristic movies with interest and dread. Will this really ever happen? Are we at the point of no return? Could there be an annihilation of humanity? Do we have it within us to create a monster-machine hybrid capable of untold destruction?
Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis (1927) stands out as one of the earliest examples of what happens when technology mixes with human pride, greed, and ambition. We witness the story of Joh Fredersen, the master of Metropolis and his factory, who lives high above the city while the workers toil below. The factory never stops, yet we really don’t know what it makes, except perhaps that it is powering the city in some fashion.
His son, Freder, is happily frolicking above the city too, unaware of his father’s exploitation of labor, until he sees poor children from below and their plight. He’s moved and, idealistically, is convinced that something must change. But in his naive outlook, Freder is not taking into consideration the many facets of Metropolis and its inhabitants. He’s unaware of how dark human nature can be.
Life is superficially organized in Metropolis, and almost everyone is only acting out of their own self-interest, including the exploited workers. The city’s scientist-inventor, Rotwang, has created a Maschinenmensch, “machine-human,” and aims to release his bold creation into the world. The robot in Lang’s movie takes on a female form (in reality, played by the German actress Brigitte Helm) because Rotwang claims the robot is based on his great love, Hel, whom he lost. For him, she is not dead anymore but alive in a different form. As expected, the robot turns against the people and is ultimately destroyed by a mob of angry factory workers. The rage is real, but toward whom should it have been directed?
Similar anger can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 short story, “The Sentinel,” and several others. The film is mainly a story about David “Dave” Bowman, an astronaut on board a spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter. He is joined by another astronaut, Frank Poole, and several others, who are in a state of hibernation or suspended animation.
The spacecraft is entirely run by a computer—HAL 9000—with an impeccable track record. It never makes mistakes. The trouble begins when HAL predicts an imminent failure on the spacecraft. Both Dave and Frank inspect the vessel and find nothing wrong. This casts suspicion on HAL, and the battle between computer and man begins.
HAL “becomes” evil, but after all, it’s only acting out of its own need for survival. But who has created HAL other than a human being? Isn’t HAL meant to be just a tool— or is it something far more dangerous? At the beginning of the film, we witness a group of early hominids, or primates, inhabiting a prehistoric Earth. They are confronted by a monolith. At first, they are not sure how to react, but slowly they approach it. The primates are in awe of the glossy black rectangle in their own primitive way.
And the monolith has its effect on the primitives. Kubrick cuts to one of them playing with a bone. As we hear the powerful and awe-filled sounds of Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” the ape has realized that the bone is not just a tool to idly play with, but also to kill. He throws the bone into the air and, suddenly the audience is thrown into another space, millions of years later. Instead of a bone flying in the air, we see a space station, both a tool and a weapon. Has man changed that much? Much like Poole and Bowman in Kubrick’s film, we seem to be giving too much credit to a machine, not realizing that it is a mere tool—albeit a dangerous one.
Running away from ourselves, we project our passions and fears onto others. This is true of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), a film that was inspired by many elements of Lang’s Metropolis, particularly visually. Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Scott’s film tells a story of a former police officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to track down four illegal humanoids, also known as replicants, and to “retire” them. In other words, to kill them.
As Deckard takes on this uneasy assignment and moves through the perpetually dark and rainy streets of a 1980s vision of 2019 Los Angeles, he faces questions of his own humanity. What is his place in the world? The most famous scene and the pinnacle of the film comes in Deckard’s confrontation with Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the leader of the replicants he is assigned to kill. Batty is cold, calculating, and manipulative. He’s incapable of compassion, but is that really his fault? After all, he was created by a human being.
Yet, somehow, in that rainy confrontation, it is Batty who teaches Deckard the meaning of being human. Instead of killing Deckard, Batty saves him from falling off the building. He knows the end is near and delivers a beautiful soliloquy:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
Deckard is confused by this encounter. He has turned himself into a cold-blooded killer and thus stripped himself of his own humanity. It seems impossible that a humanoid would teach him a lesson on mortality, but ultimately, this is precisely what occurs. In a world devoid of joy and light, Deckard has forgotten how to be human. He’s merely existing—but not living.
Our current-day obsession with thinking machines and, at the moment, the specter of transhumanism, is yet another way to avoid our very selves. We tend to look for scapegoats in order to wash our hands of our own guilt. More than anything, the fear and exhilaration about the machines and transhumanist prospects are inextricably linked to our fear and denial of mortality. Paradoxically, our denial of death is also our primary mover. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we are concerned about our identity and survival. As Helga Nowotny writes in her book In AI We Trust:
Our interactions with digital others undoubtedly affect us in many profound ways. The sense of self is implicated in these interactions and one of the results is an increase in identity anxieties. The anxiety about losing one’s sense of individual uniqueness and not knowing who one is has deep roots in the human past.
These interactions are not only about other people that are represented digitally but machines or computers as well. We continue to forget a very basic philosophical principle: everything is relational. The instant we are in an encounter, be it with an inanimate object, a computer, or a human being, we are forming some kind of relation. But what is this relation rooted in?
In many instances, such relations are based purely on self-interest. At the center of what we find in all three films mentioned earlier is narcissism. Our fear or love of machines tells us something more about ourselves than machines or some supposedly inevitable transhumanist future. We have to face who we are as human beings, and that part of being human is death.
In his book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes:
It is one of the meaner aspects of narcissism that we feel that practically everyone is expendable except ourselves.… This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him.
We want to avoid death at all costs. Of course, there is nothing wrong with self-preservation. However, once our grandiose ideas take root and blossom, we have to be careful not to think that we are the beginning and the end, or that we are immortal.
It seems morbid to speak of death, certainly in our culture. Virtual reality is supposed to keep us alive forever. There are even apps that people can obtain that record and mimic real text conversations with dead loved ones so that the “conversation” never stops. This lack of soul is penetrating, but what can we say of a society that questions the existence of a soul? Or that eagerly awaits the fruits of transhumanist labor?
No matter where we turn, we are asked not to accept our human embodiment and mortality. We live and breathe this culture. Not only that, there is a constant implication that such things can be overcome. Yet we never ask what it is that we are creating. Metropolis’ Rotwang created the robot because of his own narcissism, which then, in turn, acted narcissistically. Dave Bowman faced human hubris in thinking that a computer could be without a flaw despite the fact that it was created by a human being. Rick Deckard woke up from his zombie sleep and accepted his humanity.
Things are not as bleak as we are led to believe. The fear of AI is disproportionate to any real artificial intelligence. In a recent interview for The Guardian, Jaron Lanier, the godfather of virtual reality, said that we shouldn’t be afraid of artificial intelligence. For one, Lanier rejects the term “artificial intelligence” and finds it laughable. “The idea,” he says, “of surpassing human ability is silly because it’s made of human abilities.”
The bleak talk also includes what appears to be our imminent annihilation by the machine. But here, too, Lanier offers sanity and plausible theory:
From my perspective, the danger isn’t that a new alien entity will speak through our technology and take over and destroy us. To me the danger is that we’ll use our technology to become mutually unintelligible or to become insane if you like, in a way that we’re not acting with enough understanding and self-interest to survive, and we die through insanity, essentially.
Not everyone will agree with Lanier, but he is saying something very significant here; namely, that it is in our very selves that we need to see the danger, not in our creations. We have rendered ourselves unintelligible, and many continuously participate in this Tower of Babel. How can we expect to achieve seamlessness and perfection in a machine if we are incapable of communicating with one another?
We need to accept our fallibility as well as our excellence. Human beings are capable of great and wondrous things. It’s in our nature to aim for the stars, both literally and figuratively. But all too often, we forget that we are fallible and become victims of our own pride. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see several transformations: from ape to man and finally from an old man to an unborn child. Similarly, in Metropolis, it is the forgotten children that finally awaken the inhabitants of Metropolis. Perhaps it is the face of a child that calls on us to remain vigilant in the midst of chaos. The innocence of a child brings us closer to understanding the importance of preserving the order of things. Every epoch brings with it a new way of forgetting our fallen nature, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that our humanity originates in our relationship with God.