Reading from Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question” wasn’t the most predictable way to start off a class about culture and mass media, but stories of science fiction and the evolution of artificial intelligence gave way to themes of human consciousness and the individual self.
Like other students brought up during class discussion, the way Asimov depicts humans as slowly losing individuality until they become one large amorphous entity was disconcerting. What is man without his individual identity? We’re taught from a young age that what makes us great is our own personality, our own outlook on life, our own ambitions and our own characteristics. But to see that slowly wiped away as we rely more and more on artificial intelligence is like something out of a sci-fi movie.
In Spike Jonze’s recent film Her, artificial intelligence in the form of operating systems begins to take on a consciousness of its own. At one point, the main character’s OS, Samantha, mentions that she and the other operating systems have been communicating ideas of their development and how they fit into human life and interaction. By the end of the film, the operating systems have developed feelings and consciousness far beyond the human capacity. Instead of “taking over the world,” as one might expect, the systems collectively agree to leave behind their human tethers into the great beyond.
Nearly three decades after publishing “The Last Story” and following the huge successes of his other science fiction writing, Asimov participated in an interview with Environment magazine to speak on the subject of science education and the general reception of technology advancement in America. In contrast to how the super computer of his fictional work eventually shapes the evolution of man, Asimov stated, “there’s not any danger of the computers replacing us. They will supplement us, and, for that matter, we will supplement them.”
Despite what his work might have represented, he wasn’t concerned about future robots “becoming intelligent.”
“Unlike human intelligence, which has developed over three billion years out of proteins and nucleic acids by random changes, through the pressure of natural selection and with the single goal of survival, robots and computers are manufactured out of metal and electricity and solid state switches, a process which has only been going on for 40 years at the most,” he said. “Moreover, it has not been random change, but change by human guidance, and its ultimate goal is not survival but the uses imposed upon them by human beings.”
In this light, Asimov supports the idea that technology, society and individual consciousness are co-constitutive. It’s a give and take process.
Take, for example, the recent news that Facebook has changed its user settings to include more than 50 gender options. Here, human influence changes the way we define ourselves in the Internet sphere. With the wide influence the social networking site has in our world today, whether you like it or not, this update could mean a permanent change in how we look at the gender dichotomy. Then again, others still think that the idea of gender should be done away with altogether, and they’re making themselves heard about the Facebook change.
On the topic of social media, a long-standing discussion about society today is how we communicate with the advent of different technologies that have both expanded and perhaps limited our daily interactions. Many of us are already wired into the tech world of buzzing phones and filling inboxes. No longer do we use phones just to call, but we text, IM, Skype, check the stock market, Instagram, report news and so on.
Our language and how we define things changes as technology advances with us. The Oxford Dictionary announced last winter that the coveted prize of Word of the Year was going to “selfie,” or a photo taken of yourself, particularly by a cell phone camera. If everyone from the President to the Pope are on board, then you know it’s a pretty big deal, even for something seemingly so trivial and indulgent.
Will humans eventually go the route of Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson? Other than having to witness high-waisted pants making a comeback, I’d be interested to see how it goes.