I alluded previously in passing to the Hollywood film Ex-Machina. In case you missed it, the premise of the film is that a quirky I.T. billionaire has created a robotic human. Visibly, it passes as a human but what he really needs to do is see if it passes a variety of tests from another human to be confirmed as a sentient being.
Subtle hints are there throughout about how illogical humans can be and whether it’s socially ethical to create a robotic human and mistreat it or use it sexually. The subtext tells you exactly what to think. The billionaire himself, clearly based on something Google-related, has cut corners and shown he has no ethics himself in exploiting customer data way beyond legality. The tester, a social failure to some extent, believing that coming to the billionaire’s house gives him social status he has never had before. Ah, us humans, how imperfect, with feeble emotions and needing to be replaced by something 100% logical are we?!? Of course, the film proceeds exactly as you may expect, given the agenda. The human tester, who doesn’t even realise he is part of the experiment, falls in love with the Robotic Scandic, Alicia Vikander. I won’t spoil the ending, but needless to say everyone gets what they deserve. Or what you are led along the path to think they deserve.
It’s a thought-provoking film, but what struck me soon afterwards is what was missing from the film. The Tester is never allowed close to the robot. All tests are conducted with a glass screen between them. It’s quite a subtle but important omission, when you think about it. Psychologically, most of what helps us decide if we like or dislike someone, can trust them or not, is non-verbal. I read once that humans will sniff their hand within one minute of shaking hands with someone. I can well believe it, what is gut feeling, if not actually based on exactly what it means. While we don’t go sniffing around bottoms the way dogs do, we’re still mammals, still looking for and responding sub-conciously to the same cues.
What else is noticeably missing is facial expressions. It took me longer to realise that. The robot may indeed be defined as attractive, but is a woman who never smiles truly beautiful? I doubt it. Again, these non-verbal cues may be sub-concious, but it doesn’t mean they’re not an essential part of being human. Not even smiles, but what about those other universal micro-expressions? All of them related to emotions, negative and positive, but an essential part of human life and communication.
Start shutting these down and a large part of being human disappears. That would never happen of course, though…would it? Oh wait, it already has and is happening – think social distancing, handwash and wearing a mask. Stick perspex screens up in the tills at shops, then one day, just replace the person serving you with a clone and as long as they can carry the interaction out in the correct sequence, how likely are you to even notice? Then, eliminate the shaking of hands and insist that humans stay 1-2m apart. That should stop you being able to pick up scents, or the existence of an aura. Then, that just leaves the pesky problem of verbal and non-verbal communication between people, even children standing in soul-destroying distancing circles at school. Stick a mask on them, now see how well they can read faces for what’s really being said as opposed to just the words themselves.
It was all so, so simple. Millions of years of evolution suppressed, perhaps even destroyed long-term and people went along with it, cried for it even, to fight a virus with the same casualty rate as the flu. Or so they were told.
Now, look around you now. Examine those people closely. Are you sure they’re all really still human?