Will Our Robot Overlords Be Freer Than Us? A Philosophical Investigation


Give the British a perfectly normal story about robots, and they will turn it into a disquisition on freedom. In the recent posthumanist film Ex Machina, director Alex Garland does just that: when a brilliant programmer builds an artificially intelligent creature named Ava, it isn’t long before she kills everyone and flees headlong from captivity. But when she exits the compound, is she truly free?

The exact same thing happens in The Soul of the Marionette, a new book by the gloomy philosopher John Gray. Or, we should say, Gray is asking the exact same question.

But to get things started, Gray, who is England’s resident pessimist, points out that the secular, technoscientific belief in progress — of the kind that motivates the characters in Ex Machina — is not actually secular at all. In fact, with its faith in the evolution of consciousness beyond the body, it is instead a weird strain of ancient Gnosticism, which you might remember as that post-Christian conviction that the God of the Old Testament was actually a demiurge, a contemptible sub-God who ensnared our souls in matter. “To be free,” the Gnostics thought, “humans must revolt against the laws that govern earthly things…[t]hey must exit from the material world.” And in the ideology of modern science, Gray writes, the Gnostic project of “liberating the spirit from the material world has not disappeared.”

Gray has in mind the transhumanism of Ray Kurzweil, the daydream of downloaded and uploaded consciousnesses, the self-augmenting networks of a dozen Hollywood blockbusters, the apparent posthuman sexual iconicity of Scarlett Johansson… and other ecstasies.

For Gray, the religious heart of all this scientific fantasizing beats like clockwork. This is because human beings are crazed, violent, internally divided, metaphysically obsessed creatures who cannot help but find solace in the varieties of religious experience. Extend this human religiosity to neoliberalism, capitalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, etc. etc., and you can start to trace (somewhere on the cave wall) the outline of Gray’s philosophical enterprise — to undercut all philosophical and political utopianism. Or so it would seem.

Billed as a “short inquiry into human freedom,” The Soul of the Marionette finds its simple pleasures in asking why the Aztecs “freely” endorsed the ruthless, programmatic practice of ritual sacrifice. Or in noting, by way of clever readings of semi-canonical books (seemingly always by men), the human penchant for absurdity, defined as “the tendency of humans to use words without meaning, and then to act on them.” As he flows between books and history in that singularly British way — in the manner of a BBC documentary or, at best, an Adam Curtis film — Gray at once humors and annoys his readers.

That is, until he returns to the question of the artificial intelligence. The path toward artificial intelligence, Gray thinks, is pretty much inevitable, precisely because we cannot help ourselves. But will these robots, with their own hyper-speed consciousnesses, ever be free? Freer than us? Probably not, Gray thinks, because we will have made them ourselves from matter. “When thinking machines first arrive in the world,” Gray speculates, “they will be the work of flawed, intermittently lucid animals whose minds are stuffed with nonsense and delusion.”

The future robot, at most, can hope for merely the sensation of choice and the belief that it is free. But as Gray points out, its freedom will be as finite and useless as our human version. And what is human freedom? “Freedom among humans is not a natural human condition,” Gray writes. “It is the practice of mutual non-interference — a rare skill that is slowly learned and quickly forgotten.”

As a result, humans — and, presumably, robots — should abandon utopian schemes of interpersonal freedom and learn to rely on “inward” freedom:

If freedom of any kind can be found in these conditions, it is some version of the inward variety that was prized by the thinkers of the ancient world…it is only the freedom that can be realized within each human being that can be secure.

It is only this inward freedom — like the soothing exhalations of a thousand gurus — that can assuage the divided self. In a vintage passage of New Age pessimism, Gray takes a tiny penknife to the flesh of his fellow human animal:

What seems to be singularly human is not consciousness or free will but inner conflict — the contending impulses that divide us from ourselves. No other animal seeks the satisfaction of its desires and at the same time curses them as evil; spends its life terrified of death while being ready to die in order to preserve an image of itself; kills its own species for the sake of dreams. Not self-awareness but the split in the self is what makes us human.

But in the final estimation, Gray, like a programmable nihilist, commits the selfsame error he ascribes to utopian schemes and Gnostic scientists: his belief in the limited consciousness of all matter is nothing but another metaphysical idyl — one that leads inevitably to the inward happiness of his design. “Nevertheless,” you might say, “Gray’s obvious delusion and opportunism actually proves his point about selfish humans and their doomed robot progeny.” In that case, don’t model the next Ava after John Gray.