E-learning and Digital Cultures, Week 4: Redefining the Human #edcmooc

Week 4 of the MOOC E-Learning + Digital Cultures explores the theme of “Redefining the Human”.

I think the over-arching message this week is that our concept of humanity has become a relative and subjective thing. These videos explore that idea in different ways and different genres.

Robbie – A Short Film By Neil Harvey from Neil Harvey on Vimeo.

Robbie tells the story of a space-faring android who is the last occupant of a space station orbiting the earth. I could easily tell that this film was composed entirely of stock footage, but then again, how easy would it be to shoot your movie on the space station (or a realistic, earth-bound mockup). Nonetheless, the repetitive, stock footage appearance of it put me off a bit.  Aside from that, Robbie is an engaging tale about  survival, loneliness and angst from the perspective of an artificial intelligence.

I don’t know if 4000 or 6000 years of feeding its neural net with information would result in an android that would have dreams – literally flights of fantasy – and not for one moment did I buy the premise that Robbie wanted to be Catholic.

I’ll say that again: Catholic. I’m not anti-Catholic or anything, but such a specific choice of religion seems out-of-place. Is the author of this piece likening Robbie the Robot to Jesus, by virtue of his symbolic impending death (and do we presume, rebirth?)

My expectation of an autonomous, artificial intelligence would be that it would be somehow more neutral, probably atheist or maybe humanist. It either wouldn’t believe a religion or perhaps it would believe in the species which created it. Okay – so, I’m an atheist and I have a hard time with that aspect. I’ll leave that point alone, and get on with it.

No – I just cannot leave the religion aspect alone on this one…

The idea that a robot with what we consider to be A.I. would care about one religion over another probably says more about the film maker’s attempt to imbue his protagonist with some kind of “soul”, so that the viewer will empathize with him. “If the robot wants to believe in God, then he must be more like me than I thought. If he could consider accepting God as his creator, then he must have a higher level of enlightenment, just like a human.”

If, however, Robbie were to possess the actual mental engrams of a former human being – if a human being’s actual thoughts and personality could be transferred into Robbie’s memory and mechanical frame – then THAT would convince me to feel sympathy for Robbie’s plight (his curse of immortality).

But so long as I believe that Robbie possesses a 21st century version of artificial rationale, I can never consider him conscious, and so I will never accept him for much more than a glorified electric screwdriver left behind by a space workman. How cold-hearted am I? I just didn’t buy into this movie’s attempt to tug my heart strings.

Gumdrop was a sweet little comedy, and a gentle visual sleight-of-hand. By substituting a young human actor with an android auditioning for an acting job, we end up starting to think about the values and hopes of the young actress, mechanical or not. Gumdrop was a light-hearted examination of the casting call too: do we treat each other like commodities or machines? Does the audition process demean the female actor? Should human actors be worried, now that we live in a world where lots of supporting and lead characters only exist in an animation database, but never in the physical sense?

Gumdrop’s vacuum cleaner gag was very funny. But, does that mean she’s really just a glorified Rosy the Robot? What happens when the acting career is finished, or when she outlives her warranty? Will she get literally dumped on the scrap heap?

For some reason, I care about Gumdrop more than Robbie. Maybe it’s the human motion and voice. She’s much more likeable than Robbie. Like they said in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way.

Maybe one day soon, Honda’s Asimo walking robot will be able to audition for Survivor or something.

Hm. Robot Survivor – I’d probably watch that…

TRUE SKIN from H1 on Vimeo.

True Skin is an extremely well-made, and convincing film. Very Blade Runner-esque. Great Raymond-Chandler-inspired dialogue. “Their eyes burned holes in my pockets” was a brilliant line.

So, the one thing all these films have in common is that they live or die by the quality of the plot and the dialogue. Yay, human writers!

In terms of the humanity proposition of this week, I think this film does the best job of articulating some major issues:

  • If there comes a time when we can no longer define or recognize humanity by its fleshiness, will it still be considered human? Is a cyborg who is less than 50% flesh and bone still a human being? Maybe the more metallic and less meaty we become, the less human we will be perceived to be. Ben Kenobi said of Darth Vader: “He’s more machine than man now, twisted and evil.”
  • On a personal level, if a friend of mine had their thoughts transferred into a little computer, and I could interact with them (either text, or maybe Max Headroon style on a display screen), would I still consider them human? Probably not, if I could put them into Standby Mode, or turn them off, like any other device. So, maybe autonomy and self-preservation are other key aspects of being a sentient being?

I loved Avatar Days. The simple concept of transplanting a fantasy persona into the owner’s real-world life and society is an extremely powerful thing. It’s done so matter-of-factly and carefully that it becomes a real artistic social statement. Coolest of all, it’s contemporary. You can get immersed in World of Warcraft or Second Life and become a sword-swing, spell-packing nerd of Azaroth today.

I’ve played around in Second Life a bit in the past (reporting as “Earnest Oh”), so I can appreciate the appeal of being able to put on that second skin and walk around (or remove it and assume the position, in a lot of people’s cases… yeesh, people). It makes you wonder about the boundary between fantasy and reality for one thing. I read somewhere, that internally, your brain does not distinguish the difference between a memory of a real event, and a memory of a dream. They’re both equally valid as memories, even if one of them didn’t occur in the physical world. So, if our brains are already wired to accept dream-memories as valid, why wouldn’t we send coma victims to Azaroth to kick some goblin ass as part of some cognitive stimulation therapy? At least they’d have something interesting to do.

What about The Matrix as Long Term Care Facility? Let me extend that interesting idea into my personal life experience…

My Mother was a long-term care resident at our provincial mental health hospital for many years. I’m willing to bet that if my poor Mum were able to choose between (A) stay in a semi-vegetative state with little physical activity and not much on TV, or (B) Be Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (her favourite movie), she’d have gone for Option B and never looked back. And if I could have visited her on the yellow brick road instead of in the awkward, cold silence of a hospital visiting room, I know which choice I’d have made too.

Dorothy and her friends had much more fun…

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