The popular Matrix movie trilogy depicts a futuristic dystopia in which humanity is enslaved by intelligent machines, used as a power source while they live out virtual lives in a computer-generated world similar to the “real” world just pre-dating the takeover of the machines. What is not explored in great depth in the movies themselves is the back-story: How things ended up that way.
A series of animated shorts, entitled The Animatrix, explored some of the peripheral stories surrounding the series. Two of the chapters are devoted to developing the storyline that leads up to the situation depicted in the movies. It begins when humanity succeeds in the creation of artificial intelligence. Soon, intelligent, anthropomorphic machines are doing almost all of humanity’s “dirty work,” and humanity falls into a state of vain decadence. One day, a robot with the designation B1-66ER is threatened by its owner with deactivation, and in response, kills both the owner and the mechanic instructed to deactivate it. B1-66ER is arrested and put on trial. The robot claims that it acted in self-defense, stating that it “simply did not want to die.”
Those who are interested can explore the story in greater detail here, but I’d like to look at the case of B1-66ER in a Theosophical light. The moral dilemma in the story is that B1-66ER is viewed simply as a machine, yet it acted in what it stated was its own self-defense. Can a machine be intelligent? For that matter, can a machine be conscious? Supposing we soon develop a machine sophisticated enough to plead for its own life, how would we know whether or not there is a life there for which to plead? After all, the machine could simply be executing its programming—nothing more, nothing less. This issue is compelling enough from a purely philosophical point of view, but its examination from a Theosophical viewpoint seems even more thought-provoking, as Theosophy offers a variety of unique lenses through which to explore it.
For example, Theosophy teaches that there is no such thing as “dead” matter, that even an atom is alive in its own way. There is nothing special about the atoms that compose our physical bodies aside from the fact that they are, for a time, somehow held into a complex organizational structure by a guiding principle during our physical life. The blueprint for our bodies is said to be built up of etheric matter by an elemental before we are born; the atoms that constitute our physical body are organized according to that blueprint. Is it absolutely necessary for incarnation to take place this way?
Let’s stretch our imaginations and assume that a robotic body could be created that is very similar to a human body, even down to sharing the human form’s strengths and weaknesses. Let’s now imbue that robot with an artificial brain loaded with incredibly complex programming similar in sophistication to a human’s brain. Could an ego incarnate into such a vehicle? There is no dead matter, after all—so why not?
Today there are many computer scientists eagerly working to develop artificial intelligence. Computers started beating chess champions years ago—and while that doesn’t involve true thinking so much as quick calculation and a well-written logic program, there are computer programs today that write poetry and create artwork. You can even have a chat conversation with one. As advancement is made in the field of AI, these questions may become more pertinent. How will we, as humans, treat “intelligent” machines? How will Theosophical ideas influence our perspective on the matter?