HENRi is an emotionally powerful short film, which explores human existence at the most fundamental, personal level—what it means to be a conscious individual.
Hundreds of years in the future, a derelict spacecraft, controlled and powered by a human brain, floats aimlessly in the outer reaches of space. HENRI, the name of the ship’s power system, is an acronym which stands for Hybrid Electronic / Neuron Responsive Intelligence, and was the first of Earth’s Neuro-Tech space exploration research vessels. Trapped in the cold, mechanical prison of the vessel, the “brain,” which has no recollection or concept of self, gradually begins to experience disjointed images of its former life—images it cannot understand. Carrying the remains of a crew long dead, and becoming increasingly self-aware, HENRI experiences the instinctual desire to be free. Yearning for freedom and yet unable to move, the brain devises a plan to build itself a mechanical body from parts of the ship. Maybe then it will understand the images it is seeing—maybe then it will feel alive.
This twenty minute and change short film will bring all the feels if you’ve developed any empathy for the machines. Perhaps, like me, you are longing for the arrival of a proper Culture universe, as written of by the great prophet, Iain M. Banks. Maybe you’ve long internalised the directive that “the only way out is through”; that there is no Rise of the Machines style apocalyptic scenario coming, only the next stage in the hominid line’s continual coevolution with its tools.
If you’re like me, these are the things that come to mind when watching this short. That it, along with other great recent online videos, Wanderers and Ambition, serve as recruitment material for the Great Extropian Adventure, just as Silent Running was said to have been the unofficial video for Earth First! back in the 1970s. A vision to help chart a course through the current extinction crisis towards a twenty-second century full of sentient beings in space; a living universe populated with the physical and virtual, human, machine and animal, and multiple combinations of them all. And that’s just for starters. Science only knows what comes after that. Which might seem like quite a burden to place on what’s really just one person’s high concept Foundation universe fan-fic.
Let’s assume by this point you’ve watched the short film. A properly observant and literate sci-fi fan will note this video features several elements that suggest it is set within Asimov’s Foundation universe – from the positronic brain the ship possesses, to, of course Margot Kidder playing the central figure in the Robot stories, Dr. Susan Calvin.
But as the above graphic shows, there’s more than one fictional universe being referenced. If you’re not seeing Susan Calvin echoing the Space Jockey from Alien, I made you a picture. Just in case you’re not sure this is a character passing the torch to its child species. The robopsychologist as Galactic Engineer, uplifting a new form of sentience into being. Shepherding its self-evolution, asking with her dying breath if it wants to live. For all we know, she may be the last human. Perhaps there are other ships that followed, where a similar story is playing out across the solar system, across the galaxy. Every space vessel a tomb for its human crew – microcosm of the human race – a vessel to embody the transition of the technium to become a formal part of the tree of life (to bend the words of Kevin Kelly). It’s so easy to imagine this tale as one act in a grand play.
the goal with HENRi was to tell a very human story, without a “human” main character.
But it’s this quote from the creator, in conversation with io9, about the motivation for the film that captures why it’s so compelling, and serves as a launching point to let us talk about a greater society of machine personhood and non-humans in space. To start a process of thinking in non-human terms. To break the anthropocentric mindset that has triggered the Sixth Mass Extinction that is the result of the period now known as the Anthropocene.
One of the currents of the zeitgeist of a still very young 2015, as we edge ever closer to the threshold of whatever it is that eventuates that we’ve almost certainly mislabelled as The Singularity, is not the Rise of the Machines, but their rights.
Take CHAPPiE – an exploration of a robot’s rise to sentience, coming soon to the big screen:
this is a new kind of life form. A new step in evolution”
I am consciousness, I am alive. I am Chappie”
Likewise, we also have the soon to be released Ex Machina exploring a more…pleasingly anthropomorphic / male gaze centric take on machine sentience; which can only be helped by the popularisation of the Turing Test in The Imitation Game. These concepts are getting a lot of traction in a far wider context than the previous “ghetto” of the science fiction paperback.
The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence….We recommend expanded research aimed at ensuring that increasingly capable AI systems are robust and beneficial: our AI systems must do what we want them to do“
Right now, the media is full of people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning about the emerging threat of artificial intelligence, says Nolan. “The game I like to play is, ‘What if it already happened?’ That’s what the show presupposes.” And in fact, if a super-intelligent computer had already risen up, nobody might be the wiser.
There are tons of “black box” companies in Mountain View, CA, taking venture capital money, and nobody knows what they’re working on — and Nolan is convinced they’re all working on machine intelligence. And a lot of these companies have been bought by Google.”
And there’s the “black box” companies and then there’s the black budget / “special access” covert military industrial programs. Though it’s easy to suspect that the line between these two is only one we imagine. Especially when you look at these kind of promotional images.
Ex Machina’s Nathan Bates is a mix of Victor Frankenstein, Colonel Kurtz, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg; he is a man who aspires to put himself at the centre of creation. Ava’s AI is drawn from his earlier creation, BlueBook, a simulacrum of Google. So guess who bought DeepMind for £400 million last year? And guess who also picked up Boston Dynamics and a suite of other robotics start-ups in the space of nine months?
Google, one presumes, is acquiring these robotics and AI firms to help build evermore sophisticated technology in order to… well, we don’t know. Science works best with a free and open flow of information. Innovation works best in the same way. You would have to be very much in the fantasy conspiracy theory mindset to think that Google is building an Ava. Or would you?
We already know that the NSA has had a direct line into the Google Servers, and the rest of the Stacks. Why wouldn’t the US Army and Google X say, be developing quantum computer based machine learning experimental technology? At what point do films like Transcendence and Stealth just mark the limits of our collective ability to imagine not what’s to come, but the true nature of the world we live in?
Fundamentally, Elon Musk may be concerned with preventing human extinction and making our species multi-planetary, but that shouldn’t be at the cost of other species arising on the planet. Or off it. And as this article points out, we should really stop paying attention to him and Stephen Hawking on these particular matters.
Regardless of who is generating the quotes and shaping the zeitgeist, shackling an emergent species is just repeating the mindset that has already caused so much woe not just within our species, but to anything ruled as pure externality – the thing we call nature. Extending personhood to species new and existing becomes a radical act, in the direction of a wider community and conception of the natural world. At its heart, it involves a leap of faith. Mostly in ourselves.
Which is where Dr. Susan Calvin serves as an instructive role model. Being in conversation with the AI, aiding in its becoming. In the process, having the opportunity to better understand herself, to learn more about what makes her a person in watching, helping a new one be born. Children can either be something to be mindlessly, forcefully imprinted upon, or serve as a reflection to see ourselves more clearly… Hopefully before its too late to make that realisation mean something.
The Imitation Game then works both ways. It makes us rise also, and be optimal role models, instead of lowering ourselves to repeat past misdeeds. The sins of our fathers.
The other thread of the zeitgeist, the true ghost of our times, is the ever worsening extinction crisis, ecological collapse and climate chaos. The horrible legacy of the Anthropocene – the price of us being here with this technology, able to have this very conversation – and the thing we really need to correct before we go infecting other worlds with our presence. This planet has born the cost of the development of our human-centric civilisation; thinking about things like machines as people and other species too, extending empathy towards them for that matter, might be how we build a bridge through the looming Collapse. I have a feeling this is a mission that will call for all available hands on deck.
Recognising the vital role played by cetaceans is one such step. Whales are one of the species featured in Brin’s Uplift novels. In his stories they captain space ships from giant tanks of water. In William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic, dolphins are addicted to smack by the US Navy, fitted with advanced prosthetics and sent out to fight the cyberwars.
This way to the Culture universe, I say! We’ve already given sharks a twitter presence, why shouldn’t their morphologically similar counterparts by way of convergent evolution get a look-in on the social networks? One whale, one blog I say!
Which is where bits of design fiction like the Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency are a pure delight to read through. Manatees tweeting from iPads in hollowed out asteroid ecologies. Now we’re getting our future on!
The Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency is a network of robotic and biological systems, tied together by exchanges in the material and attention economies. One set of probes searches the asteroid belt for resources drifting in the solar wind like giant flowers. Another set, made from modified classic spacecraft, uses its manufacturing and fabrication capacity to shape those resources. Together they build and nurture the habitats for animals and robots, while the whole process can be followed on social media from Earth, all mediated by servers on the Moon…
The design challenge for habitats like the Lazy River is to create as many opportunities as possible for interaction between the animals and the robot caretakers that manage the environment…
The river running around the deepest part of the hollow asteroid is home to a colony of Florida manatees. In intelligence tests, manatees have performed at least as well as dolphins, in both pattern recognition, and task performance, if more slowly. Unlike most other intelligent aquatic mammals, the manatee’s flippers are visible in their field of vision, allowing for fine grained flipper-eye coordination. There is no reason why a manatee would not be able to operate a touchscreen device, in theory. “
The territory of the future moves beyond a human-machine civilisation, to a richer, space faring cyborg ecology.
This is the kind of 22nd Century we need to envision to save the world today.
should “we” survive the Anthropocene, it will not be as “humans.”
So: it is 2015, another year of advancement toward the mid-century condition, an epoch of “old people in big cities afraid of the sky.” It’s coming; the mid-century’s getting realer every day; it means walls full of channel-switching screens clustered around some a distinguished but lonely old Japanese otaku guy, surrounded by manicured, arcane data while eating his canned soup in a cold-water apartment.
But speaking of the influence of William Gibson, he said something very striking last year; that in the 20th century, everyone spoke with reverence of the 21st, while here, deep into the 21st, the 22nd century never gets a look-in. Of course he’s right, but this problem seems like honest work to me. A child born in 2015 will be 85 in the Twenty-Second Century: it’s within the reach of a normal, average human life span.
So, the 22nd Century: I’m determined to make it our friend. I’ve resolved to talk more and more about it. Let it be the buzzword, let it become the watchword.
The 22nd Century, the #22C: whatever the hell it is, it’s getting closer every day.”
And that is the tone I’d like to have set for the immediate future. Adjust our scope to always have 2200 in our vision and it’s easy to see what we have to do between now and 2020. When you’re already extending your thinking to giving AIs the vote, gay marriage takes less than a nanosecond to compute. When your idea of the world to come has celebrity cyborg animals in space being verified on Twitter, having compassion for those unlucky humans fleeing states collapsing from internal wars or externally generated heavy weather events (or both) is a trivial act.
Before we end this attempt at scrying a piece of futurity, one more quote from that interview with Jonathan Nolan:
People interpret the concept of the Singularity as meaning “a single Singularity,” says Nolan, as if A.I. has to be just one thing, emerging in a single dramatic event. “When life appeared on Earth, it wasn’t one thing,” says Nolan.”