As cool as all the technological advances are with computers and the creation of video/holographic worlds, there is always the fear that one day the machines will turn the tables on us and trap us in their world. Many sci-fi films have addressed this very fear. “Tron” and “Matrix” being two of the better known films; and more recently, this same fear was addressed vividly in the television series “Caprica” and “Dollhouse.”
“Tron” told the story of a man who was inadvertently digitalized and sucked into an egomaniacal A.I. computer system. The film followed his journey to find a way to both escape and destroy the A.I. system.
In “Matrix,” a man awoke to find that his entire life had been lived in a virtual world of an A.I. system’s making in order to feed off human beings as a life force. He had to simultaneously combat the A.I. in virtual and real worlds in order to free the entire human race.
So while “Tron” and “Matrix” told the reverse stories of finding one’s self trapped in a computer-generated and controlled world, “Caprica” and “Dollhouse” had a slightly different take on it.
In “Caprica,” Tamara Adama finds that because her human body was destroyed while her conscious was engaged in a computer hologram world, that she is trapped there. She has no physical body in which to return.
Then in “Dollhouse,” people volunteered to have their personas downloaded onto a disc and saved while their bodies were farmed out to the highest bidder. This also created an odd predicament of who has the rights to the physical body if the body’s remaining consciousness develops its own secondary persona. Additionally, in “Dollhouse,” they had a world where they kept disagreeable personas captive in a computer-interlinked world known as the Attic.
In all of these scenarios, it was a living-hell for the human unable to escape. While we all may dream of a perfect utopia where we can give up our physical ailments and the curse of dying before our time, it still sends shivers down our spines to imagine a world where we did not have physical control over it. To be hostage at the whims of a machine is utterly terrifying.
While “Caprica,” and the little known sci-fi pilot “Virtuality,” explored human fascination with voluntarily plugging ourselves into a virtual world for pleasure and escape from our mundane everyday lives, there is no such thing as a perfect man-made world. Computers at best are still man-made. Any programming, A.I. or otherwise, still stems from a human who is always at their core flawed. Thus, no computer-created world could be perfect.
Our fear of becoming eternally trapped in such a world and at the mercy of a machine is not without reason. A machine — even one endowed with A.I. — cannot feel human emotions, nor empathize with our fear of loss of control. In fact, A.I. would feel superior to humans because of its perceived infallibility. It would not feel encumbered by irrational emotions and flawed logic.
However, as scientists and sociologists have debated for decades, can a machine truly ever be superior to humans? Machines must be programmed to reason and make logical choices. They cannot yet independently make deductions, apply reasoning, perform problem solving, use common sense, demonstrate learning and perception, and are not capable of social intelligence or creativity. Everything a computer knows or uses was somehow put there.
Which becomes the oxymoron in the equation. A.I. is only as good as its creator. The creator’s limitations and motivations become the framework within which A.I. systems operate. The possibility of cybernetic revolt or independent uprising is nearly inconceivable unless some human put that kind of programming code into the A.I. It is not impossible that one day machines could rule the world, creating a nightmare equivalent to something out of the “Terminator” films; or even a world where everyone is plugged into a machine, like in “Matrix”; or worse yet, a world where our personas are downloaded into the computer-verse and our bodies used as biological computers, or cyborgs.
We may shudder to imagine a world so dominated by computer-rule that we become enslaved to it, yet look around you. With the proliferation of computers in the home, work place and now in every cellphone on the planet, humans are nearly continually “plugged-in” in one fashion or another. Our bodies may not yet be physically attached or our minds neuro-connected, but surely the technology is at our fingertips. How far off is it before these so-called science fictional possibilities become an everyday reality?
Isaac Asimov laid the foundation of the three basic rules to govern A.I. and prevent it from becoming the independent monster we fear. Yet as anyone who saw the film or read the book, “I, Robot” knows, rules are easy to circumvent — especially when you do not program the A.I. with those limitations. It only takes one. One A.I. without the restrictive constraints of our moral and ethical code is all it would take to conquer the world.
Our fear should not be of alien invasion, but rather of the silent invasion already at our doorstep. We have invited them into our homes. We trust them. We rely on them. They already control our lives. We are just one small step away from voluntarily giving up our physical free-will. Computers only appear as innocuous toys and tools, but they have the capacity for so much evil too. Like a gun is only as dangerous as the person holding it, a computer is only as dangerous as the person who programs it.
Despite the real world implications hanging over us, our fascination with computer-worlds is not diminished, but heightened. We are desperate to find out if a virtual world is as fantastical and wondrous as we dream it to be. Ask any sci-fi fan, “Tron” and “Matrix” did not send audiences screaming into the streets and smashing their computers; nor did “Dollhouse” and “Caprica” persuade us that we should give up our internet addiction. The symbiotic relationship between man and machine still captivates us. We truly want to believe that we can control and master any A.I. developed. But what if we are wrong?
Raise your hand if you are willing to live in an eternity in any of these computer-run worlds. Truly, would you?