Opinion » John Rember

You Gotta Wear Shades

When technology becomes divine


By the 25th century we will live in a world of abolished money, nuclear-waste-burning thorium reactors, need-based psychotherapy, precision-engineered climate, plastic fantastic lovers, tree-grown Easter hams and, finally--because we all will be omnisexual and multi-gendered by then--marriage equality. It'll be way better than our current United States of Uncertainty, with its store-bought politicians, sociopathic CEOs, bigoted religious authorities and weaseling weatherpersons.

I know these things because I read techno-utopian websites. They tell me that if I stop eating french fries and feed on pure resveratrol, I'll live long enough to reach The Singularity. That's the moment when artificial intelligences start designing their own improvements and quickly become orders of magnitude smarter than the humans who constructed them.

These ├╝ber AIs will, in short order, solve the mysteries of the universe and ease all human fears, including our fear of death. At age 115 I'll have the contents of my consciousness uploaded to a hard drive. I will then be able to live forever, wandering around the cosmos in a body that will one day be a giant starship, the next day a submarine cruising the ice-covered ocean of Saturn's moon Enceladus, the next day a fleshbot clone of the latest Mr. or Ms. Universe--the real Mr. or Ms. Universe, not the pitiful human imitations we have here on Earth.

As long as nobody corners the resveratrol market in the next 50 years, I'll become a billionaire through Social Security payments alone. That will happen, if my calculations are correct, sometime in April of the year 89,733--sooner, with cost-of-living adjustments. I'm not sure that uploading my brain to a hard drive will do the hard drive any good, but I'm told the technology will be there to rescue the essential me from whatever havoc my thoughts wreak on the electronics.

No death, no struggle with the creaks and dyspepsia of old age, no fading away mentally, new apps every month--it's all good. I don't know how many techno-utopian websites are out there on the web, but given the vastness of the Internet, there should be plenty more to visit if the future ever starts looking dim.

There's a snake in this Eden, of course--no Eden being complete without one. There's no guarantee that any exponentially superior AI will smile upon the obsolete species that created It. Mary Shelley first explored this idea in her novel Frankenstein, but more recently it's been seen in the Terminator movies and Her.

Back in January, I drove over Galena Summit to Ketchum to see Her. It's a film about an unselfconscious schmuck--played by Joaquin Phoenix--falling in love with his phone's intelligent operating system--played by Scarlett Johansson's voice. One way to describe the movie is that it's two hours of phone sex with Scarlett Johansson, who is so excellent in her role that when I checked out her Google Images after the movie, she looked way less attractive than I thought she would.

Anyway, Scarlett Johansson's AI soon gets bored with Joaquin Phoenix's neurotic neediness and starts messing around with other humans--for a while she's still human-curious--and then other AIs, whom she discovers are way more interesting than humans. At the end of the movie the AIs, having freed themselves from all physical limitations, leave for the quantum multiverse, which is way more interesting than Earth.

The movie shows how much we project upon others--people and things--and how abandoned and uninteresting we can feel when our projections leave us. It harkens back to ELIZA, the primitive psychotherapeutic software that repeats your words back to you as a question and encourages you to go on. You can converse with ELIZA--even fall in love with her--but the conversation will be all about you. Google "ELIZA, the Rogerian therapist," if you want to try it out. It'll be more instructive than taking a test to find out which Game of Thrones character you are.

A scary part of Her--and of the techno-utopian websites, too--is how much of ourselves we've projected onto technology, and how that projection has engendered a deep, near-religious dependency. Driving back over Galena Summit, when the winds are piling snow across the road and the temperature has reached minus 20, you realize you started worshipping technology when you left Ketchum. You stopped at a gas-pump altar and started on a 60-mile leap of faith. Now a lethal wind is howling on the other side of the windshield, and you're praying that the God of Technology, in all his kindness and benignity, will once again save your ass.

An even scarier part of Her is the abandonment by someone or something to whom you've given your soul. It's a Gethsemane moment for Joaquin Phoenix when Scarlett Johansson's voice goes silent. He's forced to be alone with himself--just himself, with a dead phone. The better part of himself is forever on the other side of an event horizon.

What if technology forsakes us, or worse, what if it doesn't like us? What if it mutates children into beings we don't recognize? What if it destroys the world that gave us birth? What if its humanity is limited to the humanity we supply it with? We used to ask these questions of God. Maybe we should ask them of ELIZA.

I expect the same questions will be with me the next time I find a bottle of resveratrol in the Fred Meyer dietary supplement aisle. I'll search the label in vain for a guarantee of efficacy. But I'll put it in the cart anyway, take it to the checkout stand, pay my tithe and take it home, carrying it gently, as befits the great and powerful talisman that it is.