One of my latest story ideas was inspired by recent comments from a member of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), suggesting that most intelligent aliens might be artificial life forms. That got me to thinking…
From the engineering perspective, we organic life forms are rather arrestingly inefficient machines. So many redundant and useless systems, to say nothing of the vestigial elements left by evolution. In a removed line of dialogue from Wide Horizon, the artificial intelligence known as the Hive had lamented the inherent difficulties in creating believable humans, likening the practice to designing an aircraft with turn signals and a horn. Even now, we are finding ways to use technology to do things our bodies do far more effectively. Several years ago, researchers created an artificial heart capable of pumping blood continuously without generating a pulse. As one of the researchers put it, “Nature did the best it could.”
Thus, we are faced with the prospect of one day creating artificial beings that operate far better than any natural organism could. This begs an ominous question: what would this mean for us? Will we eventually see a merging of man and machine, where the distinction between human and artificial intelligence becomes meaningless? Or could we ultimately be supplanted by the very beings we’ve created? Could humanity ultimately turn into an evolutionary dead end, yielding to artificial life forms just as earlier hominids yielded to us?
The Inheritors deals with the latter, perhaps darker possibility. While I’ve yet to flesh out the concept, the story follows the exploits of a race of artificial life forms created by humanity. Set in the distant future, the story is predicated on the idea that all organic intelligent species inevitably face extinction after creating artificial life, which ultimately supplants them.
I find this story deeply unsettling from my own humanist perspective, yet also intriguing for the unique creative opportunities it presents. How would a species of artificial beings interact? Would they face the same challenges we face in our society? How would humanity be viewed from a historical, or perhaps even paleontological perspective? Would we be viewed positively, as benevolent progenitors, perhaps even ascribed mythical significance? Or would we be viewed by artificial creatures much the same way we view early hominids: as a failed species?
Naturally, much will change as this concept develops, and with all the current concepts of long standing I’m working with, it may be some time before I really give this idea the attention it deserves. I must admit, however, it’s a fascinating idea.