On Life and its Future
Published March 2017 in Bilkent News.
I have a friend who’s a great proponent of the mechanization of the human body. Eyes gleaming, he tells anyone who’ll listen about this new, invulnerable self, exquisitely constructed, free of death. Sometimes he’ll talk about the end of humanity in general, mouth wide in enjoyment; I’ve heard it so often it feels punched into my skin, the destruction of our species rubbed over me in braille. My friend envisions the takeover by artificial intelligence with an irresistible enthusiasm. “In the beginning,” he says, “the human brain was millions of times faster than the quickest computer. Now it’s only thirty.” His mouth breaks open in pleasure as he asks, “How long will it be before we go obsolete?”
His point of view seems immature to me. It’s odd that anyone can so love contemplating the end of humankind. But perhaps it’s mine that’s immature – in a way, I’m clinging to the way things are solely because I am also human and do not want us to die. In the bigger picture, the replacement of humanity by something better, more moderate, less unpredictable, something that unemotionally does what it needs to survive – something that relates to the earth, efficiently and productively, and can constantly redeem itself – such a replacement might be beneficial for the entire planet. The postbiological evolution imagined by my friend could be inevitable, just the next step in natural selection – why shouldn’t our inorganic brainchild demonstrate its superiority to us, its organic creators? We are as little God to the computer as nature, sidelined and broken, is to us. “They can already process much more accurately than we can,” my friend asserts cheerfully. “Everything. All of it. In a little time…”But, I tell him, brow furrowed with the slight embarrassment of an undue question, computers can’t make art.
He turns his black eyes on me, and I feel him teetering between a dismissal of what I’ve said and an acknowledgement that it derives from something deeper – from my love for humanity’s redeeming creativity, for the rumbling, chaotic genius that produces music and murals and literature, the yawning hunger of revolution; for philosophy and politics, social dialectics, for all the clever ways in which we attempt to govern the universe. Perhaps these are only so dear because they’re so familiar. Perhaps the tension of revolt, this substomach tautness – the knowledge that something is going to happen – is too human an emotion to be related to by outsiders. The pleasure of reading poetry, quiet moments in which we find beauty, watching the sun, watching the fields, watching one another’s mouths – not only to observe, cold and analytical, but because they’re achingly wonderful, each a sodden marvel, so wildly fragile; he knows I mean this in the small moment we lock eyes, and I know that no computer will ever know a moment like it. Then he rolls his shoulders back, a laugh crinkling his eyelids, and says, “Art? Who the hell cares about that?”
This is the point I’ve been rolling over in my mind the whole time we’ve been talking. Are the more delicate things we appreciate appreciable only to us, because we create them? Without human chemistry at work, will anything we’ve produced make any sense? Yes, perhaps computers have no need at all for romantic love, and no neurochemistry to maintain it, but what about love in an all-encompassing sense? Love for concepts, for others, or not love but affection, not love but intimacy, a need for understanding, emotion in all the convoluted forms that make up the basis of human behavior – will all of this be lost? And will it matter much if it is? To me, personally, it will. To the rest of nature, I can’t know. Perhaps the next step in evolution will embed something human in our computers; perhaps they will unconsciously continue making art. If one continuously strings words one after another, sooner or later every possible sentence in the language will be formed. Maybe in this way computers will be better poets than we are. I don’t believe that anything written without purpose can be poetry, and that anything unappreciated can be art. I don’t think that computers can be human enough to appreciate it. And I don’t know whether it would be good for them to be so either – the world may need a respite from human nature after so long. Maybe it’s the same thing that allows us to create that leads us to so intensely destroy.
I am not an expert on computers. I speak based on a quick conversation, a Wikipedia article, and fifteen years’ disparate observations on man. Well, the latter sounds dramatic – not what I was aiming for; I’m not sure about anything, and that’s what I meant, but at least I have some grasp on the emotional side of it all. There is nothing I can say about the future of life on Earth except that I think the human era is drawing to an interesting close. Either we’ll be driven to extinction, leaving our planet bare for a new predator, or we’ll slowly lose parts of what makes us human. We already implant much into our bodies that is fundamentally unnatural; we don’t have far to go to reach a significant degree of mechanization, first medical and then heretical, until perhaps we fuse with what we’ve created into something colder and more robust than man. I don’t know if it would be natural at all, or how I really should define such a thing – it’s obvious it wouldn’t be wholly biological. But I don’t think it would be difficult for its behavior to be more natural than ours.