Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ten Years to Tanhauser Gate

It recently occurred to me that, for a blog professing to discuss science fiction (among other things), there's been very little in the way of the speculative genre here so far. Sure, I've made references to movies and books here and there, but only in so far as they emphasize my central point. Well, I've decided to remedy that. I'm going to muse about Blade Runner, which I've seen a number of times but recently watched again last weekend. I'd like to make this into a semi-regular feature in which I examine science fiction stories through the lens of my particular brand of futurism, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

To begin, I want to address what many consider to be the central mystery behind this film: Is Deckard a replicant? The answer: It doesn't matter. It's not important to the story being told. I'd even go so far as to argue that the very fact there is ambiguity over whether or not Deckard is a replicant demonstrates that it doesn't matter; people still enjoy and find meaning in the film even without knowing.

So, for the time being, let's set aside that question and explore a few other issues. Watching Rachael realize that her memories had been fabricated, Batty coming to have compassion for Deckard, and Deckard falling in love with Rachael, I remembered a line in Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines, which was, essentially, "When machines tell us they're conscious, we'll believe them." I was originally skeptical reading that, mostly because I believe I'll still be skeptical when machines start mimicking us.

But what Blade Runner does very well as a film is to show how universal and constant some of humanity's traits are (to humans, anyway): the desire to be loved, to live a meaningful life, and to be remembered. Rachael might not be perfectly human, but it doesn't matter, because in a dark and dying world like the one we see in Blade Runner, Deckard wants very badly just to connect to someone. And likewise, Batty's impassioned, if short monologue at the end of the movie is intended to convince us and Deckard that replicants are worthy of some degree of humanity.

Now, you might argue that the replicants in Blade Runner are not machines, being as how they are genetically engineered organisms and not electronic robots. But I hardly think this distinction matters where it concerns our attitude toward our creations. Humans are already quite capable of professing sympathy for the artificial, so I'm skeptical that humanoid robots would be treated much differently than engineered replicants. What roboticists and computer scientists have yet to convince us of is that human-like creations are human, but they're getting close.

All of this brings us back to what might as well have been Dick's version of the Turing Test, the Voight-Kampff Test. From his slightly warped perspective, however, the machine is used not to elevate but to discriminate. The blade runners of the film run the Voight-Kampff to single out those that are lacking in empathy (especially, in the book, toward animals). Humans have a long history of labeling our enemies as "inhuman" and hating them for it, and here Blade Runner is more allegory than science fiction. It is interesting that we often inflict far greater cruelty and malice on those that appear not quite human than those that are not human at all.

What the film demonstrates, however, is that humans treat as human those that we feel to be so. Empathic connections are more important to us than clinical definitions, and if we want something to appear human, it is. From this perspective, the unresolved question of Deckard's humanity may be more meaningful if left so. Whether Deckard was created in a test tube or born in a hospital, if we empathize with him, then he is human. This mirrors his view of Rachael, after all.

But that leaves us with one niggling doubt, which the film does not fail to explore. The replicants we see in Blade Runner are not human-like but superhuman. They are faster, stronger, and capable of seeing things no human would believe. As a humanoid creation becomes more and more human, we are less and less inclined to trust it, thinking it a deception or an impostor of some sort. But once our creations begin to emote in recognizable fashions, all of that mistrust will disappear, and when they tell us they can feel, we'll believe them. What happens, however, once they surpass us? What will humans do when the fear is not that their creations are not quite human, but that they are far better than a human ever could be?

Blade Runner, bleak as always, paints a dim picture. The institutions of humankind, which - athough they are made up of humans - possess almost no humanity, are relentless in finding and destroying rogue replicants. Tyrell, the replicants' creator, plays God and seems to have no qualms with enslaving and deceiving his creations.

And with all the hysteria that exists in science fiction of machines run amok, could we blame ourselves (or our descendants) for reacting similarly? Will we have the wisdom to learn from our artificial progeny, or will we fear being left behind? And what rights will we grant our betters? If animals - viewed to be less than human - are afforded fewer rights, would not superintelligent robots be deserving of more rights? I doubt very many of us will see it that way.

Of course, none of this is new. The speculative genre has been probing these questions since its inception. But we are now only a decade away from the year in which Blade Runner is set. We may not have off-world colonies or genetically engineered humans, but we do have robots in our houses and AIs in our banks. Soon, the hypothetical questions of science fiction will become actual.