Zombies and cyborgs: when algorithms will call the shots
"The goddess Aruru washed her hands, took a pinch of clay and threw it into the wilderness. And so she created Enkidu, child of the silence." This is the first event in the first story ever written down: the epic of Gilgamesh from more than 4,000 years ago. The first story of all times also contains the first half-human character. Enkidu is made of clay and has to become a human being by making love and eating food for seven nights in a row. Enkidu is not the hero of the story. The protagonist is Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh has another problem. He is for two-third god and for a third man. But he wants to become a hundred percent superhuman. He wants eternal life. Isn't that beautiful? In the first story ever written, so long ago, we have someone who is half man and someone who wants to become superhuman. And since that time, in virtually all civilizations, we have always invented stories full of beings who are half-human. You learn a lot about societies by looking at what they fear in superhuman and subhuman figures.
Take the medieval story of the Golem, a Jewish legend, about a giant made of clay that protects the Jews from anti-Semites. But he has gone crazy and attacks his creator.
What is the message of that? From what were the inventors of this story afraid of?
Vampires: extremely popular in the nineteenth century. Suddenly the vampire is the scariest monster in literature. Why? Because in the 19th-century people were afraid of female sexuality. What happens when your daughter finds someone who is so attractive, so romantic, and indeed: as white as a vampire? That is the subtext of vampire stories.
What are we afraid of?
What about us? What are we afraid of in our society? It is striking that in our stories there is often also at least one half-human and one superhuman character type.
If you think of half-human characters, you immediately think of zombies. The genre of the zombie film started as early as 1932 but only broke through in the 1960s with Night of the Living Dead. It's all the rage now. The film industry now produces more than 30 zombie films per year worldwide. The genre is so well known that you can walk like a zombie and a child of three years old understands what you are acting out. And the genre requires so little explanation that you can combine it with any other genre. It fits in everywhere. Then you get films like La Cage aux Zombies. Or Biker Zombies from Detroit. Or what do you think of Santa Claus Versus the Zombies?
Night of the living dead (1968)
The second thing we are afraid of is the cyborg. They are in every science fiction film. At least you assume that there is one in it. There are virtually no SF films without cyborgs. And if you look at the ten most lucrative films in 2017 worldwide, there are only two without semi-human characters: Despicable Me and Fast and Furious. In the rest is either a cyborg or a zombie. Or something very similar: Beauty and the Beast. Thor, Spider-Man, Superman - all the Marvel films.
Solutions that we don't understand
We are obsessed with beings who are different from us. Why? I see obvious reasons why our culture in our own heroic stories is so concerned with the threat of beings who are not entirely human. This is especially clear with a cyborg. It seems likely to me that we are going to develop a form of AI that is smarter than all of us. And it will not take that long. If it didn't happen already.
Watch the performance of AlphaGo, a neural network from Google that beat the best Go player in the world, Lee Sedol. It did so by thinking: which move would a person never do? Which move would a person never attempt? AlphaGo did that move. And that is just the beginning.
AlphaGo versus Lee Sedol
As artificial intelligence becomes more powerful, it will give answers to our questions that we no longer understand. That is already the problem with neural networks that imitate our brain in their degree of consciousness and abstraction: you don't see what they do. It is the first device where we don't completely understand its functioning. And like I said: that is just the beginning.
It is inevitable that they will come up with answers that we don't understand. Solutions that we don't understand. And they will also ask questions that we don't understand. So in fact, we don't know entirely what they are up to. Understandably, therefore, that we fear the cyborg. Even though they do not get a human shape like in Terminator or Blade Runner, it is very logical to fear that such a superhuman being will be made by us this century.
The fear of becoming a zombie
The fascination with zombies is somewhat more difficult to explain. Of course, it can simply fall under the heading of pure entertainment, but in the meantime, we also experience a kind of helplessness towards technology that makes us feel like a zombie. I do not need to know the multiplication tables: my phone calculates it. I don't need to know all kinds of facts because I can look them up like that. Fantastic. There is a digital cloud full of information.
But what am I without that cloud? The more apps you use on your phone, the more personal information you give away to someone else who can predict what you are going to do, who you are or what you think.
With less than 200 likes on Facebook, an algorithm can say with great certainty which skin color you have, which party you are voting for or which orientation you have. The algorithm knows you better than your life partner. It probably knows you better than yourself. This makes it understandable that there is a kind of undefined fear in our society: the fear of becoming the slave of algorithms we don't understand. The fear of becoming a zombie...