Think you know Blade Runner? Think again, buddy.
Blade Runner flopped at the cinema when it was released in in 1982, but it soon became a cult classic. The dystopian nightmare raises many questions, but the central one asks “what is it to be human?” Philosophers have been asking this question for (literally) ages, so the film and short story on which it is based (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) have clear philosophical roots. Could artificial intelligence ever reach a ‘human’ level, to the extent that we would attribute it a mind? Is the human brain akin to a computer?
In Blade Runner, not only has artificial intelligence passed the Turing test, it’s been made to look and feel like a human
Alan Turing certainly thought so, and invented the Turing test to find out. The Turing test pits a human and a machine against one another – they must persuade a separate person (who speaks to both individually) that they are the human in the experiment. If the judge of the experiment deduces that the computer is the human, the machine can be conceived of as a ‘thinking’ thing. Imagine MSN’s SmarterChild, but on a bigger level. Nothing has really come close to passing Turing’s original test, although it was recently reported that chatbot Eugene Goostman had. The machine didn’t really fit with what Turing imagined as an intelligent machine, however, so we shouldn’t get too excited.
In the Blade Runner universe, not only has artificial intelligence passed the Turing test, it’s been made to look and feel like a human. They undoubtedly think, although they are created to fulfil a specific purpose and their memories are falsely implanted. So why aren’t they viewed as human? According to the Tyrell Corporation, it is because they can’t feel human empathy. They have created their own version of the Turing test: the Voight-Kampff test, which measures empathy. The androids can’t feel empathy because it takes more than their four-year lifespan to develop. However, the androids are portrayed as more ‘human’ than the actual humans they are created by, so we are still left wondering what it is that really makes something human.
Aristotle thought that humanity was rationality: we act in order to realise our reason, and this is the intrinsic good of a human being. Many others think rationality is what separates us from the animals, but when you look a little deeper you realise this view has major problems: it would exclude irrational people or those with severe learning disabilities from being marked as human.
If we adopt Heidegger’s view, the androids’ dream to become more human proves ipso facto that they are already human
For existentialists, like Sartre and Kierkegaard, a person is a human being if and only if it is an emotional being, when emotions are defined as turbulent states of mind. So a person can experience dread, anxiety, melancholy, awkwardness and so on. Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety has no object, but fear has an object. Hence, it is claimed that nothingness is the content of anxiety. The possibility of freedom appears in anxiety and dread.” This seems closer to the truth about what we view as human, and it is likely the androids from Blade Runner would be considered human under this point of view. We can therefore infer the film sides closely with the existentialist’s point of view.
Heidegger thinks a human being is always in the process of becoming, because they are able to have hopes, dreams and intentions. Thus a person is always striving for something, and this is what makes us human. A person who is incapable of striving towards something, like a person in a vegetative state, would no longer be ‘human’ in the normal sense. The central android characters in Blade Runner are striving towards a specific goal: the extension of their lives. If we adopt Heidegger’s view, the androids’ dream to become more human proves ipso facto that they are already human.
Does the film suggest that the humans in Blade Runner are actually less human than the androids? The humans seem to deny the obvious humanity of the androids, but perhaps this doesn’t mean they should therefore forfeit their right to be called human. Kant is famous for his view that one should never treat another as an end: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
Blade Runner pulls into focus how hypocritical the human race can be…inhumanity is an intrinsic part of what it is to be human
This is great advice, but it is an ‘ought’, and we do not, as human beings, always follow our ‘oughts’. It is perhaps the most human thing in the world to ignore morality in favour of other things. For example, I eat meat, but deep down I know I believe that it is morally wrong. (Sorry world.) As Nietzsche says, we must ‘forget’ in order to live a good life. If we constantly remember such facts as ‘we are going to die one day’, ‘there are homeless people living on our streets’ or ‘we are wearing clothes that are likely made by exploiting other people’, we would not be able to exist or live our lives in a fulfilling way. He does not suggest that we needn’t do anything about these problems, just that we must ignore them a lot of the time to get by.
The humans in Blade Runner are doing just that by convincing themselves that the androids aren’t really human, so they can exploit them in the way that Kant prohibits. To ascribe idealistic moral traits to people and argue that only moral beings should be deemed human would leave a very small population of ‘humans’ in the world today. Perhaps Blade Runner pulls into focus how hypocritical the human race can be, and shows that inhumanity is an intrinsic part of what it is to be human.
Read more: Philosophy & Film: The Matrix
All images: Warner Bros