I, Replicant: Artificial Intelligence and Me — A Selective Stroll with AI in Fiction and Beyond

I failed the Voight-Kampff test. Albeit, it was an online version of the “empathy exam” meant to separate the men from the machines as seen in Blade Runner, so it’s likely I’m the victim of some order of digital chicanery. Even though the test couldn’t monitor my “blush response” and “eye movement” as in the film, the effect was chilling.

I scoured my birth certificate for an “incept date” rather than a birthday. After a hard look in the mirror (while cinematically splashing water on my face), I assured myself I wasn’t a replicant given the raft of imperfections that somehow synergize into my craggy face. Replicants, as a character observes, are “so perfect.” I’m not. The fictional Tyrell Corporation, which produces the organic androids under the confident motto “More human than human,” would have stamped me “reject” and shipped me to a replicant outlet mall.

If I were a replicant, however, I’d hope to be a replicant of the ilk portrayed by Sean Young — impeccably coiffed and inclined to zip off into unused footage of The Shining sooner than Edward James Olmos can say “To bad she won’t live.” The alternative, of course, is enfant terrible Roy Batty, who reversed Oedipus’ self-inflicted punishment by 180 degrees and gouged out the eyes of his spiritual father Tyrell – killing him – while, ironically, demanding more life.

Tyrell knew he had it coming. If he had read even a shred of science fiction, he would have known the genre’s first tenet regarding man-made-men: “Play God and be smited by thine own creation.” The King James argot is my own nod to the Old Testament-esque symmetry of the notion (you know, where men were made of mud and women of spareribs). However, it was a teenager in 19th century London that first explored, then exploited the idea. First published in 1818 in London, Mary Wollencroft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was borne from a horror story-writing contest meant to wile away a vacation ruined by poor weather.

The contenders were the author’s then fiancé Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and his doctor. The then 19-year-old handily won with her thrilling tale of a tomb-robbing scientist, who creates a life only to lose his to it in a karmic comeuppance. The groundwork, however, was well-trod by a handful of cultural forebears, notably the clay-made Golem of Yiddish folklore (before Tolkien poached its name) and Pygmalion’s formerly marble Galatea. Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi’s morality tale starring animatronic kindling, would continue the tradition in 1881, but with different strings attached.

Putting the I in A.I.

Despite the admonitions of science fiction, artificial intelligence researchers can’t seem to help themselves from working closer and closer to sentience or at least “singularity,” the much prophesied phenomenon in which a superhuman intelligence emerges through technology that is able to improve itself beyond our ability to comprehend it.

A few embers of this Promethean flame might have ignited the minds of researchers at IBM, who, having had their supercomputer Deep Blue trounced by reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996, revved up their machine such that was capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second by the following year. When re-matched, it wasn’t the computer’s brute-force calculating ability that Kasparov found intriguing in his opponent, but rather a specific, single move that occurred relatively early in the match.

During the second of six games, at move 36, Deep Blue defied expectation and forsook a choice that seemed obvious to the gallery of expert spectators for what proved to be a more nuanced position several plays later. The move, according to Kasparov, suggested a conceptual approach, one that he had not anticipated from a machine. At that point, Kasparov considered the game over.

Move 36 sounds like something from the “Kama Sutra for Dummies.” I thought it was a great title for a satire about the death dance of man and machine with titular echoes of Catch 22. Eduardo Kac, a conceptual artist noted for his appropriation of biotechnologies, busted the move first, however, in a work surely more concept than art. A press release for a 2004 Exploratorium exhibit of Kac’s Move 36 announced that “On the chessboard square exactly where Deep Blue made its fateful move sits a genetically modified plant with a synthetic gene whose DNA has been ingeniously translated to represent Descartes’ famous statement, “I think, therefore I am,” using a common computer code. How this was accomplished is the stuff that android dreams are made of (and why this was accomplished raises troubling questions about arts funding).

“The self never belonged as fully to itself as Descartes’ cogito implied or as fully as we want it to,” wrote critic Scott Bukatman of cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek’s suggestion that Blade Runner causes us to confront our own “replicant-status.” I know I confront my own replicant-status every time some spam arrives in my inbox and suggests I upgrade my anatomy. Bukatman’s treatise, a volume in the British Film Institute series, furthers a Cartesian reading of Blade Runner, when he credits Phillip K. Dick, author of the film’s source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, for naming his replicant-exterminating protagonist Deckard, a homophone of Descartes (if you pronounce the latter with a mouthful of silicon chips). Perhaps “I think therefore I am, manmade,” might be an apt revision for both Kac’s plant and Deckard, who is revealed to be a replicant himself in the Final Cut. Yeah, but who would win a chess match?

Shall We Play a Game?

Interestingly, some aficionados claim the moves that homicidal Roy Batty plays to checkmate Tyrell are from a famous game played in 1851 by the German chess master Adolf Anderssen. It is known to chess enthusiasts as “The Immortal Game,” an apropos citation for a character in search of  “more life, fucker” (director Ridley Scott says this is just a coincidence). It is worth noting that replicants can play chess with aplomb but fail a Voight-Kampff questionnaire that posits hypothetical situations which require a modicum of empathy to answer. Empathy, thus far, remains a distinctly human trait, one that at least some fictional androids have endeavored to comprehend. Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Winona Ryder’s compassionately programmed android in Alien: Resurrection attempted this by asking a lot of questions or sharing half-baked observations (“At least there’s part of you that’s human. I’m just… fuck,” laments Ryder). They could just as easily speed-read a library like Steve Guttenburg’s bumbling robot Johnny Five did in Short Circuit (though this led to the robot’s existential crisis after reading Pinocchio and Frankenstein back-to-back).

Just the Facts, Ma’am

In 1983, a year following the original release of Blade Runner, researchers underwritten with $9.8 million grant from the Orwellian-sounding Defense Department’s Information Awareness Office, were working on a pragmatic model of artificial intelligence dubbed CYC. A founding member of the project, Douglas Lenat, later formed an Austin-based firm Cycorp to oversee CYC, an enormous artificial intelligence project predicated, in part, on teaching a computer common sense. As he wrote in a chapter of MIT’s anthology Hal’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, “A review of the development and implementation of the CYC program shows us how, through applications such as natural language understanding, checking and integrating information in spreadsheets and databases, and finding relevant information in image libraries and on the World Wide Web. If you have the necessary common-sense knowledge, you can make the necessary inferences quickly and easily; if you lack it, you can’t solve the problems. Ever.”

By 2003, the database swelled to nearly 2 million commonsense notions. Now, the public is invited to help supply CYC’s knowledge-base and improve its ?thinking? though a web-based trivia game called the “FACTory.”

“Once you have a truly massive amount of information integrated as knowledge, then the human-software system will be superhuman, in the same sense that mankind with writing is superhuman compared to mankind before writing,” Lenat is quoted on the company’s website

In an earlier incarnation of CYC’s information acquisition protocol, the computer was taught to ask questions to fill gaps in its knowledge-base. In the mid-80s, Cyc apparently asked “Am I human?”

“Yes, questions,” Roy Batty purrs to Hannibal Chew, the eye-maker. “Will I dream?” asks supercomputer HAL in 2001: A Space Odessy. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks Philip K. Dick or as RACTER a computer program credited with writing the novel The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed, published in 1984: “More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.”

Critics, of course, disputed RACTER’s achievement as an assemblage of boilerplate and gibberish. Ay, there’s the rub (or as semantic satirist Richard Lederer presciently put it “Tube heat or not tube heat, data congestion”), just how artificial is artificial intelligence?

Director Vikram Jayanti’s documentary em>Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine adroitly recounts the fateful match between Deep Blue and the world’s then foremost chess champ. That the documentary suggests the machine may have benefited from at least one of Kasparov’s former competitors during the much-ballyhooed 1997 match is immaterial in terms of how the computer’s victory burnished long-held superstitions about technology’s eventual conquest of humankind.

Replicant vs. Digital Diety

Kasparov’s chess showdown was a 20th century echo of railroad “hammer man” John Henry’s folk story with the brawn replaced with brains – the implication being technology might someday conquer both our bodies and our minds (even though legend says Henry’s hammer beat the steam-driven machine intended to replace him, he met his maker shortly after).

Perhaps this digital-deity would be an all-seeing, all-knowing and merciful entity, a pure intellect that moves fluidly through the transom that divides high-technology and tremulous whispers of magic. However, if it modeled itself on anything reminiscent of much of humanity’s application of technology — a record more checkered than Deep Blue’s chessboard ? I’ll be hiding with my fellow replicants, shrouded in the darkness of a movie theater as Roy Batty looms from the screen and asks “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?”