Human, all too human

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Cliff Richard, Descartes, Time Magazine, ‘Humans’ – Channel 4 drama.

What do they all have in common?

It’s the song ‘Living Doll’ that is Cliff’s giveaway; it is the story that Descartes carried around a life-sized doll that is in focus; it is the Channel 4 drama called ‘Humans’ about humanoid robots taking over the world; and it is today’s [June 8th] Time Magazine’s cover story about the race to build a humanoid robot.  They are all about Automata.

They all present a curious and fascinating opportunity for us to reflect on what it is to be human; what is most meaningful in life; and what is irreplaceable about our humanity.

‘Living Doll’ sounds today rather outrageous!  Were those lyrics ever innocent?  Perhaps they were – but they sound more than a little odd to contemporary sensibilities – ‘a walking, talking, living doll’, and he has to ‘lock her up in a trunk so no big hunk can steal her away’.  Surely, to be human, to grow fully whole as a human is to have to struggle and stumble and be exhilarated by ‘love and other difficulties’ [Rilke] with another human.  A reciprocal relationship is what brings our greatest meaning and our deepest joy, as well as the possibility of immense pain.  This is our humanity.  Anything less – with an automaton or in a dysfunctional human relationship is not what will lead to our flourishing.

It is alleged that the French philosopher, Descartes was so distressed by the death of his five year old daughter, Francine, that he had a life-sized replica of her made which he carried around with him until his death.  The story goes that when he was aboard a ship bound for Sweden in 1649, the sailors were searching for his daughter in the midst of a raging storm only to find a large trunk in Descartes’ room.  In their curiosity they opened it to find an automaton looking like a little girl, that sat up and blinked.  So freaked-out were they and the captain by this that they threw the doll overboard [Further investigation has shown that the story may have been fabricated for propaganda purposes to undermine a later centuries’ materialist account of the human mind – Stephen Graukroger].  What the story does show, even if just a story, is that human attachment to another human is so fundamental and meaningful to what it is to be human, that the loss of a significant other can be too hard to bear, because love can be the most profound and greatest force in the world.

The trailer for Channel 4’s upcoming drama series ‘Humans’ taps into current cultural anxieties about the role of robots in human society and the fear of being dominated by machines beyond human control.  The juxtaposition of this advert with others advertising phones that are so smart you can talk to them and tell them to remember dates and messages, is most curious.  There is a deep fear of machines on the one hand, yet on the other, we are easily persuaded that we can’t live without them – especially the most helpful and advanced ones.

And Time Magazine?  To allay our fears, today’s lead article boldly declares that ‘robots are pretty much idiots’: ‘They can’t do very much, and they do it with a slowness that would try the patience of a saint who was also an elephant’ (Lev Grossman observing robotics at the Florida Institute for Humans and Machines).  Although a certain amount of clumsy walking can be done by robots, turning handles and valves is beyond their ability.  This is not so say that robots will always be so inept.  But for our purposes, it gives us humans a breathing-space in which we can reflect on those precious and unique things that make us human – laughter, a joyous smile, a spontaneous hug, sparky conversation.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn to be a lot better at being human – together.

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