Holden: “Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about… your mother.”
Leon: “My mother?”
Leon: “Let me tell you about my mother…”
- Blade Runner (1982)
For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working…
- Hesiod, Works and Days (par. 42) (circa 700 BCE)
I can still remember seeing Blade Runner with my own mother in a little strip mall movie theater next to the K-Mart where we did most of our shopping in Kansas City, Missouri’s northland. I remember the narrowness of the rows, the feel of the flip down seat and sticky floor as I sat there motionless and mesmerized by what remains, to this day, a true marvel of dystopian future scene setting and storytelling. We saw Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, a robot-replicant, ponder big questions like what it meant to be human, while we were left to wonder whether the story’s protagonist, Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard knew himself. The quote above from Los Angeles Police Department “Bladerunner” Dave Holden’s administration of the Voight-Kampff test to fugitive replicant Leon Kowalski triggered a reaction which threw Leon into a rage, wherein he violated the first of Isaac Asimov’s Three Cardinal Rules of Robotics: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Perhaps Leon, who was struggling with his own identity, did not believe he was constrained by that maxim hard wired into his neurocircuitry. Modern day, real life creators of artificial intelligence are warning us that this fundamental rule may be impossible to legislate. In a world where science fiction has become passé the underlying themes of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece remain powerfully poignant, and as alluded to by the Ancient Greek Poet Hesiod, mankind’s desire to become “more godlike” only results in the opening of Pandora’s Box.
One of the most powerful moments in Blade Runner is when Sean Young’s Rachel undergoes a grueling Voight-Kampff interrogation of her own, and is told by this man she has “feelings” for that her memories are all implants. Tyrell’s niece’s. The film many times reinforces the theme that memories, memorialized in photographs – at Decker’s house, in the flea bag motel where Leon and Zhora are holed up – are what make us human. Our connection with the past gives us meaning and purpose, and the desire to move forward into the future, armed with experience to do better and make a difference. To endure. Yet, right now we are all facing existential questions about our place, our meaning, our ability to compete, with things such as large language models, AI chatbots and circuit boards of our own creation.
But even my own memories of the past have become diminished by the great weight of explosive computing power, miniaturization and the urgency of now. I still have printed pictures I took, when you could only get 12-24 of them on a roll of film at a time, and their storage required an inordinate amount of physical space. I went to France for 2 weeks in high school and only came away with maybe 50 pictures. I took that many of my dogs yesterday. Looking back at the movie, I am struck by the sense of nostalgia around those pictures. The melancholy of the images Deckard feeds into his Esper Machine. Which, incidentally, there is an AI program that does almost the same thing these days…
(The image on the left I created in my Watercolors class I took between my junior and senior years of high school (1986) so I could take drafting my senior year. The image on the right I created in .035 seconds on Midjourney (2023), or did I?)
I am struck by the blow this emerging technology has on those among us who are true creatives. Surely there remains some satisfaction from creating something with your own hands and thoughts and talents. If that is all taken from us, what remains? Hesiod’s observation above about the drive of man to become more godlike is more apropos now than 3000 years ago. It seems as though it will have the same impact, opening a Pandora’s Box of unknown plagues and calamities upon us all. In such a time and place, is there any constant, any consistency we can cling to to make reasonable what seems to be pure parable?
No doubt, the contributions AI will have on creative endeavors will continue to amaze and bewilder us. It will make us more efficient, it will liberate us from the rote and quotidian, it will revolutionize. But, lest we get left totally out of the picture, we will require some set of principles with which to regulate all of this phylogenesis. The law, as we know it and as it exists on the books, will need to adapt and advance, and account for changes to technologies and involvement of inhuman intelligence. Our courts and judges will need to evolve as well, and more and more pressure will be placed on them to continue to steer the ship onward into the forever after. As Batty said, the risk is that, if they don’t, “all those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain…”
I hope to continue this conversation and to highlight and analyze what is becoming an interesting set of decisions, rulings and evolving jurisprudence surrounding the rights, title and interest humanity has in works created by AI. Continue to look here for those stories and analysis which I hope to provide with some level of humanity and expediency. Time is of the essence, after all….