Robots teach us about being human

I saw Chappie last weekend, which despite a lot of the negative reviews I found a pretty solid “mainstream” movie. It was flawed, and absolutely fell prey to normal big budget rocket, robot, and explosion juvenile male beats, but still, a movie about consciousness! – and not only that, a movie about the development of consciousness!

Noticing how much I was enjoying that aspect of the film, it really dawned on me how awesome and important robots are as a storytelling device in this moment in time, as they work as brilliant cinematic and narrative devices to teaching 2 incredibly cool concepts:

  1. Consciousness develops over time
  2. Consciousness is more than your body

There’s something magical about being robots being used as proxies to demonstrate and teach these two radically human things, in some ways more effectively than in stories with actual humans.

Consciousness develops over time

Piaget, Graves, Kegan, Stein, Maslow, Gilligan, Wilber (a personal favorite) – there has been, and continues to be an abundance of writing and research around the idea that consciousness itself is an evolving process and that it grows more complex and with a greater capacity for perspective taking over time.

Intuitively, I think most of us think of this as particularly being true when it comes to children. A child comes into the world non verbal, fused with the mother, and then over time an identity begins to emerge – via language, speech, writing, and a capacity to understand it’s own identity. Show a child a magic trick at 5 and it really IS magic. Show them again at a later age and while they might not know how it’s done, they do know it’s a trick.

The thing is, consciousness CONTINUES to evolve past childhood, all the way through adult life. While the research isn’t exactly clear what causes continued development into adulthood (environment, personal growth, tragedy, all of the above, etc) – the above researchers and writers can make a pretty damn good case that it DOES happen.

What’s this got to do with robots and movies? Well, one of the KEY ingredients in the evolution of consciousness is TIME, and time is a tricky thing to show onscreen. For me, part of what made Boyhood so magical and unique was the actual time that went into making it – a movie that is almost entirely about the evolving self of the lead character, Mason.

The thing is, just that slice of life took 12 years to make! The alternative onscreen is often using different actors, age enhancing makeup, etc, – which can definitely work but usually end up feeling a bit cheesy or inconsistent to me.

Enter the Robots

Now, here’s what makes robots such a great storytelling device for demonstrating the evolution of consciousness:

  1. Their “bodies” don’t need to age the same way people’s do – no makeup/actor swapping/12 years needed
  2. They can evolve faster than human in more compressed cinematic time

Not having to show a robot age, or worry about how it’s “externals” have changed allows the story to really focus on and highlight the internal changes.

Chappie, Johnny Five of Short Circuit, Frankenstein (an organic robot I’d argue), the T-100 in T2: Judgement Day, Data from Star Trek – One of the great pleasures of any story involving the birth of an “artificially created” consciousness is getting to see it LEARN on screen on in the pages of a story. It’s not the outsides that are changing, but the insides. Learning to become “more human”, learning to development an independent sense of identity – this is the great fun of experiencing stories about artificial intelligence.

For cinema specifically, AI/Robots work REALLY well for showing “learning” and growth because of how fast they can do it – a story can takes place over mere DAYS yet we can see an AI go from infantile to adolescent to adulthood in its consciousness, as is the case in Chappie. So the benefits are two fold – same body, and faster learning – both of which make it easier to tell a story onscreen.

Consciousness is more than your body

The concept of the soul is nothing new, and something I could argue most people in modern culture are aware of well before adolescence. However, it gets sticky and confusing (partly because we don’t actually know) how consciousness and the soul work. That said, there is an entire history of data across all major lineages of spiritual practice that pretty cross culturally and universally agree – there is something to “us” that exists beyond our bodies, and beyond our small concepts of self. In humans our interiors and exteriors co-evolve at the same time – but again with robots we can drop the exterior part and just focus on the interiors. When we can take the “exterior” doesn’t matter part for granted, suddenly it becomes much easier in stories to explore the how the “isness” of a character isn’t from their body, but from their consciousness – and in the robotic world that consciousness can move from body to body in a much simpler to understand fashion.

While this idea of soul/consciousness is probably nothing new to long term or serious practitioners, I think it’s just awesome to see it being explored in mainstream tales like Chappie – and for the right person possibly not exposed to it in their own life – what a groundbreaking concept!

We Are the Robots

Ironically, what’s so great about writing about ROBOTS is that it’s really just an opportunity to write about our humanness – which I’d argue is really the root of all great science fiction.

My life has personally been transformed and deepened from learning about the development of consciousness – and thus it’s something I’m totally committed to expressing in the work I put out in the world. Robots, and the exploration of artificial intelligence, are two of the key ways in which those concepts are currently descending into and manifesting in current culture – so fellow writers, please keep birthing new Chappie’s into the world!

1 Comment
  • Bill Hooper

    Great article!

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