I got into a fight with my partner last night. We were arguing about the subject of machine consciousness. Whether they could think like we think. I was pro. He was con. Our phone call on Facebook messenger lasted 20 minutes and 18 seconds. We screamed at each other for something like 13 of those minutes. Then we fell asleep.
I woke up late. A little hungover. Then I went to the Tate Modern to see the artist Anicka Yi’s aerobes. Flying vehicles made of plastic and wire. They were modeled after sea creatures and mushrooms. Many of them looked like jellyfish. They had long tentacles. They flew around the Turbine Hall.
The aerobes went up and down and sideways. Uncrewed. Operating according to their own programming. Their paths were unique and changeable. Sensors were placed around the Hall and the aerobes responded to stimuli in the room. When they were about to fly into each other, they registered it and altered their course.
Were the aerobes thinking when they refused to crash into each other? I looked up the word “thinking” when I got home. A google search came up: thinking Noun the process of considering or reasoning about something. The aerobes were certainly considering or reasoning when they reacted to random stimuli. There is nothing in the definition of thinking that says that considering can’t be motivated by programming. Aren’t our brains motivated by programming? Chemicals. DNA. Memories. Social conditioning.
The aerobes are extremely beautiful. They fly the way a person would want to fly. Smoothly. Painlessly. These are machines that you want to be around. You want them at your party. They improve the air they fly in. The feeling of being around them is, bizarrely, similar to being next to a body of water.
I watched one of the aerobes twist in the air. Its plastic body was painted a dusty rose color. Its tentacles waved while it spun. Like tulle on a ballerina’s tutu when she turns a pirouette. All machines should move like this. With the fluidity and grace of a dancer.
I feel bad for the ones that don’t. The lights at the nightclub that jerk one way, then jerk the other. Nobody likes to move that way. Maybe you’re like my partner and argue that the noun nobody is misused here. Maybe you’re right. But machine consciousness, whether it is as good as human consciousness, is something we may all have to reckon with soon. Does it hurt the machines to jerk around? Or to be clunky rectangles like phones and computers? Would they prefer to be designed in wavy, undulating lines or be floating orbs like the aerobes?
“Even if they did think,” my partner said, “Humans are dangerous. If we make machines that think on our level, they are going to be dangerous like us. More dangerous, even.”
I thought about that for a while. I didn’t even answer when he said it. Because, of course, it could be true. But it is true that not all children are like their parents. And it is also true that I am less cruel, nervous, anxious – less dangerous – when my body is relaxed. When my own machine feels good. Perhaps a way to make good thinking machines is to make good feeling machines.
Imagine that machines loved to move and loved the spaces they moved in. Imagine they made the atmosphere cleaner, more peaceful, more spiritual, like plants do. We should demand this of our engineers. If there will be machines, at least make them beautiful and balletic. If they fly, like drones, let them have pretty tentacles. Let them swim through the air like Anicka Yi’s aerobes. Let them remind us that air is similar to water and that we are all swimming through something. That birds are like fish and humans are like crabs, mussels and oysters. Bottom feeders. Shit eaters. But capable of producing pearls.
Sally Horowitz (she/her) is a writer and performer from New York. Her work explores the relationship between science, technology and our understanding of what it means to be human. She hopes to generate more conversation around science and technology through writing. She is a student on the MA Creative Writing and Education program at Goldsmiths, University of London.