Based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the classic science fiction movie Blade Runner features robots so life-like they’re indistinguishable from human beings. Machines Like Me, a more recent work by Ian McEwan, confronts the same conundrum. The android Adam, purchased by the story’s narrator, boasts programming that enables him to synthesize most of the world’s recorded knowledge—at least all of it that’s on the internet—through massive nightly uploads.
Dick was a radical thinker, but he was no stylist, and Androids remains to some extent in genre-Siberia, in spite, or maybe because of the success of the movie. McEwan’s work is literary, but both authors are bold enough to ask: What is consciousness? What does it mean to be alive? It’s not as if there’s a right or wrong answer—I’ll leave readers alone to ponder these immutable questions.
In each novel a feared inevitability has been realized: The robots are able to think for themselves. But the greater threat is posed by their ability to feel emotion. In Blade Runner, the cyborg’s “humanity” overwhelms his software in a way that’s central to the resolution of the plot. The McEwan character’s emotions, on the other hand, may or may not be manufactured to convey the appearance of sincerity.
Both books seem to arrive at the same conclusion: The machines are becoming more like us. That’s undeniable, but with the respect due to these prolific writers, the opposite is also true: We are becoming more like the machines. I can’t help but wonder what an essay like this might look like if I plugged its notions and characteristics into ChatGPT—ruminate in the voice and style of Peter Pavia on how humans are becoming more machine-like—and see what the app comes up with. But I want to leave aside for today the increasing role artificial intelligence plays in our lives.
Instead, I’d like to suggest that any expectation that flawlessness is somehow within our reach if only we behave more like the machines, is robbing us, in growing increments, of our humanity. Take sports. Demanding peak performance each and every time out from any natural being is slightly diabolical. A race car, maybe. A race car driver, no. Another example: There’s a growing cry in Major League Baseball, and it’s getting louder, to replace umpires, or at least the one behind home plate, the one who determines balls and strikes, with a robot, a machine without eyes or ears that will—or so the theory has it—be able to evaluate the perfect worth of some 250 to 300 pitches per game. In fact, there’s a pilot program underway in the minor leagues.
But why stop there? What about college? How about high school girls’ softball? Is a flesh-and-blood umpire going to miss-call a few? Absolutely. Just as they have been doing for the last 150 years or so of organized baseball. And in the end, what will we have gained from using robo-umps? Is some manager going to come leaping out of the dugout, tobacco-spittle flying, to rip into an implacable machine? Hardly. But what we’ll have lost is contention, passion, the fire fueling a compelling element, the human element, that’s part of all sports.
Machines have but one function. A television can only do the thing it’s designed to do—pull an electronic signal through a wire, or increasingly, a wireless connection, and transform that signal into a picture with sound. Even the cheap ones perform their duties admirably. But try firing up a television and driving it to the next town.
Engines are kept operational by oil. And how are we kept “operational?” We supply ourselves with various chemicals so we can work. Regulated blasts of nicotine encourage pieces like this to be written; amphetamine-like compounds enable our boisterous children to concentrate; intoxicants are pedaled as medicinal; soporifics steady us into sleep mode. All the powders and tinctures we consume are intended for us to be more effective, to maximize our function. Like machines.
But wonderfully and fearsomely wrought by our Creator, human beings are animated by a soul, where, according to Thomas Aquinas, the will and the intellect reside. We rejoice in myriad intentions and purposes. If we try, and not that hard, we can feel the Presence of that Creator in the starry night, at our desks in the murky pre-dawn hours, in sunrise on the beach. We’re able to design machines that transport us over hundreds of miles in mere hours. And we can call balls and strikes.
We’ve heard ad infinitum about how our old and infirm don’t want to become burdens to those around them. None of us would wish to require care, that’s natural enough, but these plaintive protests seem born of the fear that the individual has outlived any useful function: can’t earn money; no longer possesses the strength to prepare holiday meals; can’t even manage to get to the doctor on their own. Maybe they don’t have to be abandoned on the curb like an obsolescent television, but perhaps they could retreat to some obscure corner and wait to die.
But what if the sick and the old, the less fortunate among us who are everywhere, have a special function in the lives of the well and the blessed, directing us toward our highest design, toward compassion and understanding and a critical appreciation of the suffering that binds us, one to another, as human beings? I understand there’s not much practical use in that, but even the android in Blade Runner, ultimately imbued with human emotion, seemed to have—without spoiling the movie—a grasp on that.