Thursday, May 6, 2021

Reflections on Blade Runner 2049

 Includes spoilers


I've seen several future dystopia shows now with similar themes (e.g. Anon, Matrix, Altered Carbon, A.I. (2001), Battlestar Galactica, Her (2013), Terminator, Westworld, USS Callister). One of those themes is a human-like AI that wants to be human/"real". In order to blend in with humans, they have to have emotions, consequently consciousness sparks and then you're rooting for the human-craving AI who's trying to defeat the heartless totalitarian regime that created it. 

While I'm skeptical about the depicted relationship between emotion and consciousness, three aspects of this film resonated with me. The first was how effectively the audience follows the protagonist, going right along with his delusions (primarily, that he's human and was born rather than fabricated). Toward the end, for instance, he gets repeatedly wounded in a series of combat situations yet keeps on fighting. You know that a human couldn't take that much injury and keep on, yet you keep hoping against hope that somehow he's an exception.

Which leads to the second aspect: the belief that you're special and meant/positioned/destined to play a pivotal role in a world-level drama. The protagonist believes he's special, the linchpin of a conflict between the ruling regime and the rising power and the rebels, the virgin birth (in his case, he's the impossible offspring of two human-like AIs) destined to reach that moment to save or abandon humanity. Eventually he faces the truth that he's a run-of-the-mill AI and a pawn in a chess game between much larger forces. 

I compare that insight to my faith journey, where for a quarter-century I bought the story that I was so important to the universe that a God sacrificed himself for me, so I could avoid endless hell and instead become a god myself through my decisions and behaviors. As part of my faith transition I came to see my religious behaviors, such as selling Mormonism for two years as a missionary, as the behaviors of a pawn in a chess game between much larger forces: and realized that there's no evidence for that story about my future or import to the world. I'm still impacted by the remnants of a belief that I can/will make a big positive mark on the world, born of the idea that I was one of the chosen few that knew and would implement God's plan.

The third aspect is the repulsion we have to the idea that our deepest experiences surrounding our identity and relationships, are common or the product of someone else's design. A.I. (2001) explores this theme as well when an AI discovers and attacks his clones. In Blade Runner 2049 the protagonist eventually realizes that his romance with his digital assistant was the result of an intentional design, and that the digital assistant was just a scalable program that was probably doing versions of the same thing to tens of thousands of others ("everything you want to see… everything you want to hear" - reminds me of Harari's exploration of our hackability). 

Our family relationships, the experience of falling in love, etc. seem to be the most real of our human experiences and identity: could they really be so common and programmable? We resist the claim, though rationally we know that consciousness is not magical or supernatural. It has emerged at least tens of billions of times through the natural process of a human child's development: and if they can result from evolution, then experiences like falling in love can surely be manufactured as well. Why does this logic feel so threatening? Is such resistance inherent to consciousness, or just happens to be common in the human version of consciousness? 

I'm a fan of movies that leave you thinking, and I'm here writing this several days later, so I'll add myself to the fan list on this one. 

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