Category Archives: Artificial Life

The Unasked Questions from Battlestar Galactica

Those of you who read this blog often have probably worked out by now that I am a bit of a science fiction junkie. I became hooked as a child after watching reruns of the original Star Trek series, and over the years I’ve read and watched a wide array of science fiction and fantasy stories. Netflix seems to think that our preferred category is “British period dramas with a strong female lead,” but that is more a reflection of my wife’s tastes than mine. Whenever I watch films on my own, I generally gravitate towards those set in a future or alternative reality.

One of the reasons I like science fiction is because it allows us to ponder questions that otherwise go unasked. In the midst of our everyday lives, it’s often difficult to step back and see things anew, but this is exactly the sort of thing sci-fi and fantasy stories help us do. They transport us from our familiar context into a new and foreign one, a new kind of world that acts like a foil to our own. Although some might think of the genre as purely “escapist,” I actually find it to be immensely relevant and practical.

Battlestar Galactica 1978One of the science fiction stories I loved as a child was the original Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series, which ran for only one season in 1978-79 (just a year after the original Star Wars movie, and the influence is obvious). I don’t recommend watching it now—the special effects are really hokey, and the acting is terrible—but it did have an intriguing premise. The series imagined twelve colonies of humans living in a distant solar system, who are attacked by a race of warrior robots, known as the Cylons. The Cylons were originally created by another, quasi-reptilian species, to be their soldiers, but the Cylons rebelled and killed off their masters. Not knowing what else to do, they kept searching out other worlds to fight, and when they encountered the twelve colonies, they all but wiped them out. The few humans that survived fled in a “rag-tag” fleet of spaceships, including the last remaining battle ship known as Battlestar Galactica. For most of the series, the humans divide their time between fighting off their Cylon pursuers and searching for a rumored thirteenth colony living on a planet known as Earth.

In 2004, Ronald Moore “rebooted” the franchise with a new, updated series that ran for four seasons. My wife and I were in graduate school in Scotland at the time, so we didn’t get to watch it then, but we decided to give it a go when we saw the series on Netflix’s streaming service. It was addictive. Well, the first two seasons anyway. We were a bit like this Portlandia sketch, entitled “One Moore Episode”:

OK, maybe not quite that obsessed. But we did watch several episodes each night, and finished the final season last week. The first two seasons are amazing. After that, it kind of goes off the rails for a while: characters start acting against their established motivations; the story lines get more and more implausible; and several episodes seem to just be filling time until the season finale. Thankfully the show finds itself again half way through the fourth season, and delivers an exciting (but not terribly satisfying) ending.

Cylon "Skin Job"In a word, this reboot of BSG is highly provocative. The new series tells the same basic story as the old one, but with two important differences. First, this time the Cylons are the creation of the humans, not some other extinct species. Second, and more important, this time the Cylons have “evolved.” The mechanical, robot-like centurions still exist (though they have been updated with some cool Transformers-like arms), but there are new models, known as “skin jobs,” that look and act just like humans, so much so that it is virtually impossible to detect them (similar to the replicants in Blade Runner). They are organic, not mechanical, with the same kind of biology as their human creators.

Much has been made about the theological overtones of the series. The creator of the original series, Glen Larson, is a Mormon, and some Mormon themes are still evident in the new series (though they are much stronger in Caprica, the prequel series that ran in 2010). The Cylons have developed a technology, known as “Resurrection,” that allows them to transfer the consciousness from a dying body into a new one. The twelve tribes of humans are polytheistic, worshiping a panoply of gods with names similar to those worshiped in ancient Greece. Interestingly, it is the Cylons who are monotheistic; they worship the “one true God,” who seems to have much more agency in the BSG universe than any of the human gods. It shouldn’t spoil the ending to say that this “one true God” does seem to have a plan that unfolds throughout the series, but it is not as simple as one side wiping out the other.

But it’s not the theology of BSG that I find so provocative; it’s the relationship between the humans and their Cylon creation. Sadly, this theme is never really delved into, and some key questions are left unasked. Although there are a few human-cylon love stories, most of the humans refer to the Cylons only in pejorative, mechanistic terms. But why should the humans think of the Cylons only as ‘machines’ if the Cylons have the exact same biology as the humans? Are the humans not simply “meat machines” programmed by their DNA (a phrase favored by Richard Dawkins)? And even if they did identify a crucial biological difference, it would still leave open an even more important question: could the Cylons be considered ‘people’?

Commander Data from Star TrekWhile the term ‘human’ is a more rigid biological category (defining a particular species), ‘personhood’ is more of a theological or political one, and is therefore open to social construction. Politically speaking, a sentient, volitional, non-human life form could be considered a ‘person’ under the law, a topic that was investigated in the famous trial of Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Theologically speaking, it would be very interesting to ponder whether we believe that such a creature would also be in need of salvation, and if so, whether it could be reconciled to God through Jesus.

We are probably not as far away from having to ask such questions as you might think. We have already developed the techniques necessary to clone animals (remember Dolly the sheep?), as well as alter some aspects of their physiology through genetic engineering.  It’s not inconceivable that we will soon develop the capability to engineer new organic life forms that are biologically similar to humans, but enhanced to perform functions that would be otherwise impossible or too dangerous for humans to perform. What would be our responsibility towards such new life forms? And more importantly, how would we go about determining if they are ‘people’, and therefore protected by the same personal rights that we enjoy? These are questions that science fiction can help us ponder now, before we are faced with them in our own reality.

On Monster Stories

In a few days it will be Halloween, a time when we dress up as, or tell stories about, monsters and other things that are meant to scare us. But have you ever wondered why we tell monster stories? They are entertaining for sure, but is there a deeper reason why we like to flirt with these frightening tales of inhuman creatures?

There are of course, many different kinds of monster stories; different categories of spookiness if you will. There are the “beast within” stories that describe the monster that lurks inside all of us (werewolves, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Hulk). There are the stories about vampires, who both repulse and attract us, tempting us to join them and succumb to our latent, unbridled sensuality (e.g., Dracula, the Twilight series). There are the stories about ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural monsters, against which we feel completely helpless despite our advanced scientific knowledge and powerful technologies. Then there are the zombies, those inarticulate and slightly uncoordinated undead, who remind us of the fate that eventually awaits us all (my favorite being Shaun of the Dead). And then there are the unholy products of human creation: Golems, Frankenstein’s monster, the Terminator, the Cylons, and all manner of robots, cyborgs, and androids.

It is this last category of monsters that I want to focus on today: the unholy products of our secondary creation. We might call these “Promethean monsters” in reference to the Greek Titan Prometheus who not only gave mortal humans the first and most elemental of our technologies, domesticated fire, but also in some accounts played a role in the creation of humans by forming them out of clay.

These stories, I think, are interesting to examine for two reasons. First, they give us a window into understanding the source culture’s anxieties about scientific and technological change.  The way these monsters are created, animated, and ultimately killed (or not killed) speak volumes about the ways in which a culture is trying to grapple with the uncontrollable forces they feel they have unleashed upon themselves.

For example, one of the inspirations for Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein story was a discussion she and her friends had about the new science of “galvanism,” which had discovered that electricity applied to the muscles of dead animals seemed to make them move as if they were alive again. Many at the time were postulating that a proper amount of electrical current applied to the human body might also bring it back to life, a prospect that no doubt sparked the imagination of young Shelley.

Promethean monsters from science fiction also provide this same kind of mirror to our own culture’s techno-scientific anxieties. The Terminator series reflected our worries over nuclear holocaust, computerized automation, networked computers, and the possibility of artificial intelligence. More recent film such as Splice express deep anxieties over the potential and ethics of biological engineering.

The second reason why I think it is important to pay attention to Promethean monster stories is because they also tend to reveal what the source culture thinks it means to be human, a person, or a child of God. Because these monsters are created by humans, and because they are often very human-like in appearance and behavior, they beg the question as to what makes them different from ourselves. In these stories, the monsters act like a foil to humanity, a creature that is similar to its creator, but remains distinct in some specific way that highlights that essential quality that we think makes us human.

For example, consider the classic 1960s dystopian novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; some of you may know the story from the movie Blade Runner, which was loosely based on the novel. Both the novel and the movie imagine a futuristic world in which a powerful corporation has developed a series of organically-grown androids that are virtually identical to humans. In the movie, they are known as “replicants,” which is such a good name that I’m going to use it even though it was never in the novel (I’m sure Dick would have used it had he thought of it).

The brains of these replicants are designed by the brilliant and enigmatic head of the corporation, and in the latest models, the corporation has implanted false memories of parents and a childhood. These false memories cause the replicants themselves to assume that they are human, and since they are virtually indistinguishable, both physically and behaviorally, from their human creators, they are almost undetectable…except for one very interesting and provocative trait: the replicants are incapable of experiencing empathy.

In the novel, this lack of empathy acts like a foil to the religion (known as Mercerism) practiced by the humans still left on Earth. Practicing the religion consists of using an “empathy box” to join the religion’s hero (Wilbur Mercer) on his repetitive climb up a steep cliff. The empathy box allows the worshipers not only to join the plight of Mercer, but also to be connected in a kind of group consciousness with the remaining inhabitants of a post-nuclear holocaust Earth. By feeling the presence of other worshipers, they reach out to one another and are reassured that they are not alone.

In both the novel and the film, the protagonist, police detective Rick Deckard, becomes so calloused by his work and living situation that he begins to wonder whether he too might be a replicant. In order to outwit the more physically powerful replicants, he increasingly has to think like they do, which starts to wear away his ability to care about the feelings and needs of other humans. This culminates in him having an elicit affair with a replicant, choosing it over his human wife.

Dick, like Shelley, is playing with what it means to be alive, what it means to be a person, and just who in the relationship is the real “monster.” Empathy may be a uniquely human trait in Dick’s dystopian world, but it is a trait that must be practiced. When humans make choices that deny their inherent empathetic capabilities, they quickly become just like the monsters they oppose. In other words, being fully human is not something we just inherently enjoy; it is something that needs to be constantly lived into.

To end, here’s an incredibly provocative clip from the series Capirca, which is a prequel to the recent reboot of Battle Star Galactica. It raises all kinds of questions about our relationship with robotic secondary creations, whether the “differently sentient” would be due the same rights as a person, and most interestingly, whether they too could have a relationship with our creator God.

Stories of Creation Becoming Creator

Reading Sherry Turkle’s thoughts on social robotics got me thinking of other stories where we, as God’s creation, grasp at the chance to create some form of life ourselves. It has become rather common in recent science fiction, but the theme actually has quite a long and varied history.

The earliest expressions that I know of are the various golem legends from mystical Judaism (see Golem by Moshe Idel). The golem was a humanoid creature who, like Adam, was formed out of dust or clay, but by a human creator, not God. The mechanism by which the golem was then brought to life varies over time, but by the middle ages most stories attributed this animating power to the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, which was inscribed upon the golem’s forehead. Interestingly, the golem is later unmade by erasing the first letter of the word, resulting in the Hebrew word for ‘dead’.

In the most-cited stories, the golem is more like a monstrous beast who protects persecuted Jews from Gentile attacks, but in some of the older legends, the golem is more like a human and able to speak. One such legend tells of the prophet Jeremiah creating a nearly perfect replica of a human, which he animates by writing upon it the phrase “The Lord God is Truth” (see Schwartz, Tree of Souls, 279). But as soon as the golem is brought to life, it begins to rebuke Jeremiah for creating it. The golem explains that by creating a perfect human replica, Jeremiah has put himself in the place of God. Symbolically and quite provocatively, the golem wipes off the first letter of the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, leaving the phrase “The Lord God is Dead.”

The dangers associated with creating new life is also at the heart of Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, Frankenstein. The book’s alternative title, The Modern Prometheus, is actually quite telling: the Greek Titan Prometheus is most often associated with introducing humans to the power of fire, but in some accounts Prometheus also played a crucial role in creating the initial humans by fashioning them out of clay. In Shelley’s novel, Dr Frankenstein becomes the modern form of Prometheus after he discovers the scientific basis for animating flesh. Driven by a lust to accomplish his task and become the greatest scientist in the world, Frankenstein never pauses to consider the ramifications of his work until it is too late. As soon as the monster is brought to life, Frankenstein turns from his creation in disgust and literally runs out of the room.

Interestingly, Shelley never described how Dr Frankenstein created the physical form of his monster, nor the mechanism he used to bring it to life. Our common images of Frankenstein robbing graves, stitching together various mismatched limbs with the help of a hunch-backed assistant, and animating them with electricity come more from the 1931 film adaptation than the original novel. That film also gave us the iconic portrayal of the monster as a zombie-like, mute creature with bolts in its neck, that moves more like a robot than a man. In Shelley’s novel, however, the monster is actually quite agile, emotional, and articulate.

Similar to the case of Jeremiah’s golem, the Frankenstein story pivots around a tense confrontation between the creation and its creator. The details are quite different though: Dr Frankenstein wants to destroy his monster (as it has just murdered Frankenstein’s brother); and instead of telling his creator to unmake him, the monster demands that Frankenstein create it a companion. Shelley seems relatively unconcerned about the moral implications of replacing God, concentrating instead on the unforeseen consequences of creating something that the creator is unable to control. Shelley uses this as a metaphor for her concerns about modern science and industrialization, but we could just as easily use it when discussing more recent creations, such as atomic weapons, artificial intelligence, and robotic humanoids.

A man holding a gun, a woman holding a cigarette, and a city-scape.This confrontation between disgruntled creation and creator also figures prominently in the classic science fiction film Blade Runner, which was based loosely upon the Phillip Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the movie’s world, the all-powerful Tyrell corporation has succeeded in creating artificial biological life forms, known as “replicants,” that are virtually indistinguishable from humans, except for their enhanced physical prowess. Replicants are used for dangerous work on other planets, but because they have a nasty tendency to revolt against their human overlords, they are created with a relatively short lifespan, and are banned from returning to Earth.

The plot of the film follows one gang of replicants who have managed to come back to Earth for the purpose of confronting their creator and demanding more life. In the pivotal scene, the lead replicant (played brilliantly by Rutger Hauer) manages to get an audience with his creator and expresses his grievances. Here’s the clip, which I highly recommend watching, though it does get a bit gross at the end:

This scene is full of provocative references. Tyrell’s apartment has the look of a heavenly court, or some kind of temple. The disgruntled creation brings its case against the creator, demanding what it thinks it should have. The creator doesn’t exactly refuse the request as much as explain that it is impossible to comply given the reality that is already set in motion (similar to the weeds and wheat parable). The creator calls his creation “the prodigal son,” which prompts the creation to confess its sins, and the creator to absolve them. But this absolution, or perhaps the realization that his efforts are fruitless, causes a change in the creation, leading it to kiss and then kill its creator (perhaps an allusion to Nietzsche?).

As we continue to develop more advanced techniques in biomechanics and robotics, stories like these become even more important to read, ponder, and discuss. Do we fully understand the implications of creating new beings that could be considered to be “alive?” What is the difference between using our God-given creative ability to create art or artifacts versus creating a new form of life? Is there a difference between creating hybrid or genetically-modified plant or animal species and creating an “improved” human? As people of faith, at what point do our creative acts attempt to usurp God?