The isolation of 2020 redefined the world’s appetite for binge watching, sending everything from Netflix’s stock to Disney+’s subscriptions to dizzying heights. For content creators, who have always consumed copious amounts of content as homework, it has posed a different challenge: when do you switch off and start creating?
Creators with discipline have thrived in the pandemic, but for members of my tribe, whose minds have to wander aimlessly for hours before finding inspiration, multiple communication platforms and endless streaming recommendations have been counterproductive. Yet, on this dreary New Year’s Eve, the dancing-robots viral video by US-based robotics behemoth Boston Dynamics and Pixar’s latest movie Soul offered a twisted form of inspiration.
For the past two decades, with the privilege of straddling the worlds of technology and creativity, my unbridled enthusiasm for the possibilities of neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence has given way to acknowledging the dangers of runaway innovation. As I was admiring the dancing robots, the initial sense of awe turned into a queasy feeling about the meaning of being human. Sure, birds of paradise and assorted other species have elaborate routines as their mating rituals, but dance as an artform or medium of storytelling is a uniquely human trait.
In just a handful of decades, we have gone from “Doing the robot” – a pejorative indicating human imitation of the limited range of motion of robots – to robots mastering smooth and complex human dance moves. While Boston Dynamics might have spent days or even weeks programming them to perform the routine, it is easy to imagine robots capable of learning dances on their own by observing humans perform them.
In addition to household chores, if tomorrow’s robots can learn to sing and dance on their own, how would they be different than human beings? It is easy to imagine a pseudo-random process running in the background that suddenly makes a robot “feel” like he wants to learn a new dance, which would give the robot the illusion of free will and consciousness!
In neuroscience, consciousness is often considered an emergent property of the brain. Individual neurons performing their assigned tasks are not conscious by themselves, but consciousness emerges out of the elaborate dance of these different individual cells. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. A robot that dutifully obeys orders to keep your house clean and is occasionally inspired to learn a song or a dance would resemble a conscious being. Perhaps someone who has grown up in a forced labor camp or learned only to please his master in a dictatorial state. However, that pseudo-random process forcing the robot to occasionally learn or recite a dance, in spite of being a mundane mathematical equation, will be eerily similar to a spark of inspiration.
A mix of emotions
And that brings us to Soul. Pixar, the prolific studio that has created this film, has had an astonishing journey over the past few decades. Starting off with allegorical fare like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., making animations enjoyable for adults, they moved to Finding Nemo and Wall-E to address socio-economic issues like ecological conservation and waste management. Their ambition has now led them to tackle existential issues like grief in Up, afterlife in Coco, and that illusive spark of inspiration in Soul. With tools designed to appeal to kids, the messages are now squarely targeted toward an adult audience.
Soul evoked a strange mix of emotions. The vagaries of life and random nature of finding that spark in life are easily relatable. At a metaphysical level, though, we are leaving the world of human storytelling behind to use animations and imaginary constructs to dissect human behavior. A new secular religion, if you will. With a moment’s reflection, I could see it as just another layer in the film: The Pixar franchise – borne out of a spark of human imagination – finally addressing the alchemy that has made it such a unique success story. Would the robots of tomorrow be able to conjure up such imaginary worlds and become storytellers capable of examining their own “behavior”?
In a way, Pixar is an emergent property of the American system. It sits at the pinnacle of human engineering, computer graphics, and creativity. The global talent, reflected in the diversity of names in its long list of credits, includes scores of cultural consultants from around the world. No wonder it feels extremely personal yet has a global appeal. And it is more than the sum of the parts of American culture. Americans didn’t pioneer freedom of expression. Industrial revolutions began in Great Britain. Black culture, the central theme of Soul, was brought to American shores in slave ships and is still a wide-open wound in American society. However, the United States has succeeded in building a unique system around it.
In addition to letting your mind wander, this system throws countless dollars and resources at risky endeavors and fosters cross-pollination of ideas from different disciplines. Cultures are willing to shed mutual suspicion and historical baggage to create something out of nothing. And the rulers don’t tell you which stories to tell and how. So, you borrow ancient concepts from Greek and Hindu mythology, recruit an army of cultural experts to come up with a story, hire the best brains in computer graphics, throw millions of dollars at it and, voila, a Soul is born.
While celebrating Soul’s triumph, it is worth contemplating the uncertain future of this system that has historically let so many sparks fly. As the Black Lives Matter movement showed, these very institutions have historically failed minorities. Globalisation has increased inequality and severely strained the way of life of the white majority. But if America’s foundational principles have repeatedly summoned her better angels and dragged her, often kicking and screaming, from slavery to emancipation, desegregation, criminal justice reform and now #BLM-led police reforms, faith in those principles will carry the day even in these troubled times.
While Americans voting to reject xenophobia and hatred to choose constitutionalism at the end of 2020 was a hopeful sign, India, my other home, is a brewing cautionary tale. Instead of strengthening democratic institutions to become a forward-looking society, the narcissistic and insecure leader is busy propagating victimhood, hatred and lies to destroy the system from within. He does not realise that Hinduism might have given the world metaphysical concepts like the soul and even questioned the existence of God, but suppressing freedom of expression in the name of religion hampers innovation.
Searching for pride in history doesn’t address thorny ethical issues regarding the future of robotics and AI. Destabilising the system by pitting one community against another for self-preservation leads to flight of human and financial capital. And harking back to past glory without creating an open, tolerant society is a recipe for disaster.
It is 2021 and the dancing robots are asking “Do you love me?” Is your soul sulking in the corner? Or is it ready to join the party?
Mauktik is a neuroscientist, entrepreneur, author and filmmaker. He is the author of A Ghost of Che and Packing Up Without Looking Back.