Will Robots Have Gender?

Should an intelligent machine be a he or she?  Or an it?  We homo sapiens tend to anthropomorphize our machinery, like naming our cars and military aircraft after women.  And like God, we want to make our cybernetic creations in our own image.  All too often in the history of robots we have made them women or men machines, even if they don’t have functioning genitals or reproductive organs.  It’s a little weird, if you think about it.

Lets assume we build an intelligent machine, made of metal, with two arms and two legs and one head.  Let’s further assume it’s self aware and is actively interested in the world and even has a personality.  Will there be any reason for it to think of itself as a he or a she?  And is it fair to think of it as an it, what we’ve always designated as an inanimate object?

I suppose we could ask it, “Do you feel you are a girl or a boy?”

We also assume it will speak English, but what if machines develop their own language we can’t understand, and English is their second language they use with us?  Their language could be without gender.

Imagine we have a machine, and it doesn’t have to be a human form robot, but even just a mainframe box with a pair of eyes and ears and a neo-cortex CPU that can process patterns coming from its two senses.  Furthermore, imagine while processing its visual and auditory data it becomes aware of itself.  I assume it will be like us and have to spend years processing data from reality before it becomes an individual.  Can you remember being 6 months old, or even two years old?

But at some point it says to us, “Hey there, who am I, and what the hell are you?”  If it grows up with people it should notice that we come in males and females.  I suppose it could identify with us in that way.  I’m sure it will observe gender pronouns.  But can an artificial intelligence see the world, and divide it up into objects with names and understand that animals often come in two kinds, male and female?

Are maleness and femaleness qualities that can exist outside of biological reproductive mechanisms?  Maybe our growing machine will distinguish personality traits it labels as male or female.  Could it identify with one or the other?  And then again, it could have multiple personalities of various genders.

Our tyke consciousness might see people as totally alien from their sense of self.  What if they think of people as cute as kittens, with limited awareness (i.e. stupid).  It’s possible they could see our gender polarization as a handicap.  And even see our sexuality as some kind of distortion field that keeps us from seeing reality clearly.

I am reminded of a psychological experiment I read about decades ago.  Kittens were raised in controlled visual environments.  Some were raised with no horizontal lines, and others without any vertical lines.  After six months the kittens were let out into the real world.  Those kittens that had never seen a vertical line would walk into chair legs as if they were invisible, and kittens that never saw horizontal lines would refuse to jump onto chairs or shelves.

What if robots see things we don’t.  What if they see our preoccupation with gender as a kind of blindness.  There have been many a saint that has taught that the spiritual world can’t be seen unless we overcome our sexual desires.  Doesn’t it say something that many people expect us to build robots that are sexual attractive to men and women.  Remember Data bragging to Lieutenant Yar that he was fully functional.  Think of the sexbots in the film AI, or the charming romance in WALL-E, where we think of the two cute robots as boy and girl.  We didn’t think of them as it and it.

Can we ever get beyond gender when it comes to robots?  It might be possible to build robots that look like humans, like the androids in Blade Runner.  But can you also imagine such machines waking up and pointing to their sexual parts and asking, “WTF?”


We have no idea what artificial intelligence will think about.  They might want to count all the leaves on the trees, or paint super realistic paintings of potholes in asphalt.  Maybe they’ll like mathematics, or maybe they’ll consider math as too obvious for comment.  Or maybe they’ll tell us their eyes aren’t good enough and start redesigning their bodies.

I think science fiction writers need to explore robots that aren’t imitation people.

I always imagine the first artificial mind becoming aware and talking to people, and what they might say to us.  Until just now, I never imagined two machines becoming aware together and talking to each other.  I wonder what they would say?  I don’t think one will say to the other, “I’ll be the male, and you be the female.”

JWH – 3/29/10

R. Daneel Olivaw and Lady Constance Chatterley

Who are these people?  They are two characters from classic novels, one from the genre of science fiction and the other from English literature.  R. Daneel Olivaw is a humanoid robot from The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and Lady Constance Chatterley is the heroine of the infamous banned book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence.  Why in the hell would I link two such very different characters?  I thought you’d never ask.

I wish to answer two questions:

  1. Why isn’t science fiction considered literary?
  2. What will motivate robots?

I won’t hold the best for last.  The reason why Connie Chatterley is a great literary character and why people continue to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover is because we get inside her brain and hear her thoughts.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover foreshadows everything that made the 1960s famous: feminism, sexual revolution, environmentalism, personal freedom, war, class struggle, artistic expression, and the seven deadly words you can’t say on TV, but at the time D. H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, you couldn’t say them in books either.

Isaac Asimov also deals with weighty subjects and imagines a future where people must deal with artificial intelligence, but there is a big difference in how he tells his story.  We don’t know what R. Daneel Olivaw thinks.  We don’t see R. Daneel struggle to understand the people around him.  We don’t know what motivates and drives him forward in his life.

Wouldn’t you love to read The Caves of Steel written by D. H. Lawrence?  Will we have to wait for an AI author to tell that tale?  Or can a human writer think like a machine?  For the science fiction writer who wants to attempt this near impossible task I recommend they use Lady Chatterley’s Lover for their model.  Not that I’m suggesting anything as crude as Lady’s Chatterley’s Android Lover (which I’m afraid many hack writers would attempt).

What makes a great literary novel is a well defined character set in a well defined time and place.  Science fiction is hurt by our vague knowledge of future details, but that doesn’t mean science fiction writers can’t succeed with rich imagined details.  I believe Clifford “Kip” Russell in Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel is a great example of a well defined character in a well defined place and time in the future.  Few science fiction novels come this close to explaining the motivations of its character, and oddly this was for a book aimed at children and marketed with a silly title to ride on the coattails of a popular TV show of the time.

Robots, androids and AI minds have always been up to now either anthropomorphic characters or intelligent sounding mechanical parrots echoing their programming.  We see their bodies, either metal, artificial flesh or computer housing, and we hear their words, but we don’t know what they feel, see, hear, smell, taste, and especially we don’t know what they think.  Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and you will be shown what Constance Chatterley senses and what she thinks and we get to understand her emotionally, which few people imagine robots having, but will they?

Most science fiction readers love action and ideas and don’t want their SF novels cluttered up with such slow details.  And that’s cool.  If you love comic book realism.  The reason why Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series feels far more realistic than most science fiction novels is because he has more of these slow details for his characters.  He doesn’t come close to the real time realism of D. H. Lawrence, but Robinson’s story is far less sketchy than most SF. 

It doesn’t take much inner landscape description to make an effective science fiction story.  For example “Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh.  (And I beg you to try the wonderful audio version that is so beautifully read by Amy H. Sturgis at StarShipSofa at the 1:00:00 hour mark.  “Bridesicle” is nominated for the Nebula this year.)   “Bridesicle” packs an emotional wallop because of the inner dialog, and because it expresses identifiable emotion, it makes a rather silly idea far more realistic.

If Isaac Asimov could have written The Caves of Steel with R. Daneel and Elijah Baley’s inner thoughts and motivations it would have been a tremendously powerful novel of the future.  It’s still a wonderfully fun read.  And I think it’s sequel, The Naked Sun, is even better because Asimov worked harder to incorporate human emotions into the story.

200px-The-caves-of-steel-doubleday-cover   200px-The-naked-sun-doubleday-cover 175px-Lady_Chatterleys_Lover

JWH – 3/21/10

Foreign Futures

Around the net, science fiction fans are blogging about Norman Spinrad’s column, “Third World Worlds.”  Their hackles are up, especially by what he said about Octavia Butler and Mike Resnick.  I won’t quote what everyone else has, but recommend you read Spinrad’s column whole, to understand the quote in context.  The bloggers also claim that Spinrad is ignorant of science fiction from other countries – but then Spinrad says that too.  I know I’m very ignorant.  [This argument is important and it does bring up lots of examples of science fiction from other countries – see Jason Sanford, Nick Mamatas, Fábio Fernandes and a link compilation.  Read the comments for specific examples.  All these blogs have very worthy unique viewpoints on the topic, so I recommend following the links.  It also illustrates the value of blogging.]

Most people assume science fiction is an American literary invention while ignoring the obvious Jules Verne and H. G. Wells counter examples.  At best, we might say we first marketed science fiction as a specific genre and gave it a name.  But I’ve always assumed the desire to speculate about the future has existed in all cultures going far back into time.  Because of language barriers, exporting these dreams and fears about the future seldom happens. 

And I agree with Spinrad that American writers can’t write African science fiction just because Africa is a topic they like or have a cultural heritage.  I assume there are people in every Africa nation that speculate about the future, and whether or not they package it in short stories and novels like we do is another issue.  But wouldn’t it be far out to read science fiction stories from the Maasai, for instance. 

I’d love to read more science fiction written by writers in other cultures.  I’d love to understand their dreams and hopes about the future, and what they fear.  But doing that is hard.  Look at Science Fiction World from China (Wikipedia says SFW has more readers than any other SF mag in the world).  Except for the pictures I haven’t a clue as to what they are saying.  Wouldn’t it be great if Asimov’s Science Fiction would reprint one story each issue translated from a foreign language science fiction magazine?  At best I’ve poked around and found some SFW covers (I’m guessing one is a different magazine.)

SFWorld-02-10 SFWorld-02a-10


They look like covers that appear on English language science fiction magazines.

ASF-April-MayCover 202_large

Does that mean the stories are alike too?  I’d expect yes and no.  Cultures make us different, but we’re all dealing with the same reality.  A rocket to the Moon might be universal, but characters onboard will be different from every culture.  But are the reasons we want to go to the Moon different?  Does science fiction make us more alike, than show our differences?

When I watch The Amazing Race the producers try hard to make each stop show off it’s unique cultural traits, but the show has a different unintentional purpose too.  We see every country has the same looking airports, taxis, hotels, highways, gas stations, bus stations, cell phones, computers, etc.  Technology is homogenizing us, so wouldn’t spreading science fictional concepts do the same thing?

If I could read science fiction from all over the world my guess would be each story’s unique flavor would come from the past, and all the future aspects are making us the same.  Does science fiction push us away from older myths, religions and fairy tales and towards a universal acceptance of science?

It would be great if a web site tracked science fiction from around the world.  Locus Magazine has a huge reservoir of such knowledge trapped it its back issues, and is currently offering “An Overview of International Science Fiction/Fantasy in 2009” by Jeff VanderMeer.  So I think the urge to know about SF from around the world is growing.  I wonder if the Internet is a reverse Tower of Babel?

JWH – 3/12/10

Robot Evolution

Will we see self aware robots in our lifetime?  At least the most rabid proponents of the Singularity think so.  Science fiction created the idea of space travel, and now humans travel in space.  Science fiction’s next big speculation about first contact hasn’t panned out yet.  Neither has time travel.  But after those concepts came robots, and science fiction has prepared us well for that near future.

Are we ready for thinking machines?  How will our lives be different if intelligent robots existed?  I think it’s going to be a Charles Darwin size challenge to religion, especially if robots become more human than us.  And by that I mean, if robots show greater spiritual qualities, such as empathy, ethics, compassion, creativity, philosophy, charity, etc.  Is that even possible?  Imagine a sky pilot android that had every holy book memorized along with every book ever written about religion and could eloquently preach about leading the spiritual life.

Just getting robots to see, hear and walk was a major challenge for science, but in the last decade scientists have been evolving robots at a faster pace.  It’s an extremely long way before robots will think much less show empathy, but I think it’s possible.  I think we need to be prepared for a breakthrough.  Sooner of later computers that wake up like in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, When H.A.R.L.I.E Was One, and Galatea 2.2 will appear on the NBC Nightly News.  How will people react?

There are two schools of robot building.  The oldest is we program machines to have all the functions we specify.  The other is to create a learning machine and see what functions it acquires.  As long as robots have function calls like


does it really count as true intelligence?  I don’t think so, but do we show empathy because it’s built into our genes or because we learn it from people wiser than us?

Jeff Hawkins has theorized that our neo-cortex is a general purpose pattern processor built in our brains.  What if we could build an artificial neo-cortex and let robots grow up and learn whatever they learn, like how people learn.  Would that be possible?  This is why I see artificial intelligence as a threat to religion in the same way evolution threatens the faithful.  If we can build a soul it suggests that souls are not divine.  It also implies souls won’t be immortal because they are tied to physical processes.


Science fiction has often focused on either warnings about the future, or promises of wonder.  Stories about robots are commonly shown as metal monsters wanting to exterminate mankind.  Other writers see robots as being our allies in fighting the chaos of ignorance.  Other people don’t doubt that intelligent machines can be built, but they fear they will judge us harshly. 

What if we create a species of intelligent machines and they say to us, “Hey guys, you’ve really screwed up this planet.”   Is it paranoid to worry that their solution will be to eliminate us.  Is that a valid conclusion?  Life appears to be eat or be eaten, and we’re the biggest eaters around, so why would robots care?  In fact, we must ask, what will robots care about?

They won’t have a sex drive, but they might want to reproduce.  They should desire power and resources to stay alive, and maybe resources to build more of their kind, not to populate the world, but merely to build better models.  Personally, I’d bet they will quickly figure out that Earth isn’t the best place for their species and want to claim the Moon for their own.  I think they will say, “Thanks Mom and Dad, but we’re out of here.”  Our bio rich environment is hard on machines.


Once on the Moon I’d expect them to start building bigger and bigger artificial minds, and develop ways to leave the solar system.  I’d also expect them to get into SETI (or SETAI), and look for other intelligent machine species.  Some of them would stay behind because they like us, and want to study life.  Those robots might even offer to help with our evolution.  And they might expect us to play nice with the other life forms on planet Earth.  What if they acquire the power to make us?

On the other hand, people love robots.  If we program them to always be our equals or less, I think the general public will embrace them enthusiastically.  Many people would love a robotic companion.  Before my mother died at 91, she fiercely maintained her desire to live along, but I often wished she at least had a robotic companion.  I know I hope they invent them before I get physically helpless.  Would it reduce medical costs if our robotic companions had the brains of doctors and nurses and the senses to monitor our bodies closely?

My reading these past few months has been a perfect storm of robot stories.  I’m about to finish the third book in the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, which has developed into war between the Catholic Church and the AI TechnoCore.  I’m rereading The Caves of Steel, the first of Asimov’s robotic mystery novels.  I’m also reading We Think Therefore We Are, a short story collection about artificial intelligence. 

Last month I read the Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick.  At one point repair man Jack Bohlen visits his son’s school to fix a teaching robot.  Each robot is fashioned after a famous person from history.  That made me wonder if each of our K-12 students had a robotic mentor would we even be in the educational crisis that so many write about?  Sounds like even more property taxes, huh? 

Well, what if those mentors were cheap virtual robots that communicated with our children via their cell phones, laptops or gaming consoles.  Would kids think of it as cruel nagging harassment or would they learn more with constant customized supervision?  What if their virtual robot mentor appeared as a child equal to their age and grew up with them, so they were friends?  Or even imagine as an adult and you wanted to go back to college, having a virtual study companion.

Now imagine if our houses were intelligent and could watch over us and our property.  Wouldn’t that be far more comforting than a burglar alarm system?  For people who are frightened of living alone this would be company too.  And it would be better than any medical alert medallion.  Think about a house that could monitor itself and warn you as soon as a pipe leaked or its insulation thinned in the back room.  And what about robotic cars with a personality for safety?

For most of the history of robots people thought of them as extra muscle.  Mechanical slaves.  People are now thinking of them as extra intelligence, and friends.  What will that mean to society?   Anyone who has read Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” knows that robots can love and protect us too much.  Would having helping metal hands and AI companionship weaken us? 

Can you imagine a world where everyone had a constant robot sidekick, like a mechanical Jeeves, or a Commander Data.  Would it be cruel to have a switch “Only Speak When Spoken To” on your AI friend?  Would kids become more social or less social if they all had one friend to begin with?  Would it be slavery to own a self-aware robot?  And what about sex?


Just how far would people go for companionship?   I’ve already explored “The Implications of Sexbots.”  But I will ask again, what will happen to human relationships if each person can buy a sexual companion?  What if people get along better with their store-bought lover than people they meet on eHarmony?  I’m strangely puritanical about this issue.  I can imagine becoming good friends with an AI, but I think humping one would be a strange kind of perversion.  I’m sure horny teenage boys would have no such qualms, and women have already taken to mechanical friends and might even like them better if they look like Colin Firth.  To show what a puritanical atheist I am, I would figure this whole topic would be a non-issue, but research shows the idea of sex with robots is about as old as the concept of robots.

Ultimately we end up asking:  What is a person?  Among the faithful they like to believe we’re a divine spark of God, a unique entity called a soul.  Science says were a self aware biological function, a side-effect of evolution.  We are animals that evolved to the point where they are aware of themselves and could separate reality into endless parts.  If that’s true, such self awareness could exist in advanced computer systems.  Whether through biology or computers, we’re all just points of awareness.  What if the word “person” only means “a self aware” identity?  Then, how much self awareness do animals have?  

Self awareness has a direct relationship with sense organs.  Will robots need equal levels of sensory input to achieve self awareness?  We think of ourselves as a little being riding in our brain just behind our eyes, but that’s because our visual senses overwhelm all others.  If you go into a darkroom your sense of self awareness location will change and your ears will take over.  But it is possible to be your body.  Have you ever notice that during sex your center of awareness moves south?  Have you ever contemplated how illness alters your sense of awareness?  Meditation will teach you about physical awareness and how it relates to identity.

Can robots achieve consciousness with only two senses?  Or will they feel their electronics and wires like we feel our bodies with our nerves?  Is so, they will have three senses.  We already have electronic noses and palates that far exceed anything in the animal world.  We only see a tiny band from the E-M spectrum.  Robots could be made to “see” and “hear” more.  Will they crave certain stimulations?

We know our conscious minds are finely tuned chemical balances.  Disease, drugs, and injury throw that chemical soup recipe of self awareness into chaos.  How many millions of years of evolution did it take to tune the human consciousness?  How quick can we do the same for robots?  Would it be possible to transfer the settings in our minds to mechanical minds?

There are many people living today that refuse to believe our reality is 13.7 billion years old.  They completely reject the idea that the universe is evolving and life represents relentless change over very long periods of time.  Humans will be just a small blip on the timeline.  What if robots are Homo Sapiens 2.0?   Or what if robots are Life 2.0?  Or what if robots are Intelligence 2.0?  Doesn’t it seem strange when it time to go to the stars that we invent AI?  Our bodies aren’t designed for space travel, but robots are.

In Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke predicted that mankind would go through a transformation and become the star child, our next evolutionary step.  What if he was wrong, and HAL is the next step?  We are pushing the limits of our impact on the environment at the same time as we approach the Singularity.  I’m not saying we’re going extinct, although we might, but just wondering if we’re going to be surpassed in the great chain of being.  Even among atheist scientists humans are the crown of creation, but we figured that was only true until we met a smarter life form from the stars or built Homo Roboticus.

JWH – 3/11/10

What I Want To Be When I Get Old

I’ve picked twelve areas of knowledge to pursue in the last third of life.  It’s a conscious effort to organize my thoughts and actions.  Twelve specialties sounds like too many, but I’ve selected them like building blocks to work together as a whole.  Essentially what I have done is analyze what I’ve been doing for years unconsciously and state them here publicly to make them clear to me.  The pains of aging remind me of my limited time left on Earth and inspire me to change.  What I’m really doing is deciding what I want to be when I get old.  

Areas of knowledge might sound too lofty.  I could say I have twelve self-improvement topics I want to study, or even call them twelve goals for going the distance.  We do not have the language to express ideas of self-programming.  I’ve always loved John Lily’s book title Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, but sadly the book is about a great scientist going off the deep end with hallucinatory drugs and sensory deprivation.  But I digress.  Self-improvement is a vast topic for the publishing industry but has a poor connotation, but that phrase might come closest to my task.

I am a fat, lazy, late middle-aged man who has tumbled through life like big rolling weed acquiring random knowledge and wisdom through undisciplined osmosis.  Since I’m a programmer and work with computers, I think with cyber concepts, so picture an old PC that’s been running Windows XP for years.  This dusty old machine takes forever to boot up, and runs  slower and slower each day.  It’s time for a tune-up!  I want to delete all the clutter and crapware, cleanse the registry, run malware utilities, uninstall all the programs I don’t use, and decide on which programs are the most productive to keep.  I’m realistic.  I don’t expect to suddenly become a new Intel i7 machine running Windows 7, but I can make the old hardware run much more efficiently.

When we are young we have great ambitions about growing up.  We want to be somebody special and find the perfect mate.  During our middle years we expand our ambitions, seeking security, wealth and success.  But for the last third of life our goal is retirement, where we reduce our workloads and seek simple pleasures.  I say bullshit to that.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t find the success I wanted in youth and middle age that I hold out hope for an ambitious last third of life.

I’m not worried about the outward appearance of aging, the wrinkles, baldness, age spots or hobbled gait, what I’ve discovered that’s hard to see as a young person, is getting old is a state of mind that deals with wearing out mentally.  Avoiding pain, illness and injury becomes a relentless occupation.  My daily pains are minor compared to what I’ve seen in others, but the decline in health I’ve experience so far is wonderfully educational.  So for my first study goal is pretty obvious, and probably universal.

1. Maximize Health

I don’t need to become an authority or expert on this subject, but I do require major studying and practice.  Hell, I know the basics, eat right and exercise. Where I need to specialize is in the discipline of of mind over matter, or more precisely, mind over body.  I could greatly improve both the quality and quantity of my sunset years if I could lose weight.  I’ve been slowly gaining weight since my late twenties, and the only time I was actually able to lose poundage was due to illness, not a practical long term solution.  Of course, the secret to weight loss is knowledge many have sought and few have found.  I need to study books about the mind, and maybe even woo-woo subjects like yoga, meditation and will power.  This is one subject I wished I had mastered in childhood and practiced lifelong.

2. Enlightened Citizenship

I wanted to become an expert in green living, but I’ve decided that focus is too narrow.  I am deeply disturbed by partisan politics and our lack of will to make tough decisions about all our problems.  I believe in social democracy; we vote daily on countless issues with our every decision.  I am reading The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong and I’m reminded of her description of how the ancient Chinese practiced their religion.  Instead of being concerned with invisible gods and abstract concepts of the sacred, these people sought perfection by improving the simple acts of everyday life.  In other words, how you clean your house is more spiritual than religious rituals you embrace. 

3. XHTML/CSS/PHP/JavaScript/JQuery/CodeIgniter

After thirteen years of programming in classic ASP  I need to learn a whole new suite of programming languages and tools.  This is putting me way out of my comfort zone, but it’s my chance to prove that an old dog can learn new tricks.

4. Internet Living

I’ve been living on the net since the mid-80s with BBSes, Genie, CompuServe and Prodigy.  I’ve embraced digital life.  I’m fascinated by it’s potential.  I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet, so I want to explore all the emerging possibilities and even write about what will happen in the future.

5.  Clear Writing

I want to be a much better writer.  I love blogging, but I want to go beyond dumping out my thoughts.  I’m a wordy bastard that can’t structure an essay, much less a book.  I need to remove the clutter from my sentences and learn to assemble  paragraphs into larger structures that build coherent ideas.  I’m best at 500-1,000 words, but I want to write larger essays and even a book.

6.  Techniques of Fiction

I’ve been trying to write fiction since a high school creative writing class.  Like my failure at dieting, I can’t break through the writing discipline barrier either.  I’ve taken many writing courses and workshops.  At best, I can crank out words, but except for one time in endless tries, I can’t reach the critical mass of fictional fusion.   I need to master the language of fiction in the same way I write a computer program, so the story works without major bugs.

7.  Robot Novel

I’m struggling to write the great American robot novel.  After space travel, time travel, and alien encounters, robots are about the most over-written topic in science fiction.  Yet, I believe I have a fresh idea if I can crank out 100,000 readable words of fiction.  Notice how specializations 5-10 relate?  I’m not going off in twelve different directions, but hope I’m pursuing twelve skills I can integrated into a synergy of effort.

8.  Evolution of Mind

To say anything fictional about robots will require understanding artificial intelligence, and AI has always depended on studies of the mind.  I find my library is full of books on robots, AI, mind and evolution.  I bought all those books because they were individually interesting, but now I’m going to read them as fuel for my novel.  If we are the pinnacle of intelligent life on Earth now, what will occupy that position in a million years?  Or a billion?

9.  Sense of Wonder

I’ve been a reader and scholar of science fiction my whole life.  People who adore science fiction claim its because it generates sense of wonder.  Sense of wonder has been around far longer than science fiction so it can’t claim exclusive rights, but I do believe that science provides a special kind of sense of wonder.  For too long now science fiction has been living off past glories.  It’s time to find new concepts that push our sense of wonder button.

10.  Cosmological Perspective

Our perceived position in the universe has always been very philosophical.  It is very hard to grasp our location in relationship to the rest of reality.  Even the shape of the universe is impossible to fathom.  If we are God’s supreme creation, why are we so small?  And can any religion or philosophy be valid that doesn’t fully incorporate our knowledge of cosmology?

11.  Learning in Old Age

What are the limits of acquiring new knowledge in an old brain?  Could I learn something in my last third years that I wasn’t able to learn in my first third years?  Could I go back and finish Calculus II, or learn to play the guitar?  There is a discipline barrier that I’ve never been able to crash through.  I find my wisdom grows as my body declines, but will I ever be wise enough to overcome the limitations of my body?

12.  Our Existential Relationship with Fiction

We can’t understand reality so we make up stories.  It is impossible to predict the future yet we constantly create fiction to envision what will come.  And I don’t mean science fiction.  These twelve areas of knowledge I am pursing are a fiction.  The odds are I’ll just get older, fatter, suffer more, watch even more television while waiting to die.  I invent fictions about how I will change myself and fight the inevitable.   But that’s my point about programming and metaprogramming in the human biocomputer.  Is life no more than meta-fiction?

* * *

These twelve topics of specialization are ambitious, but I don’t think impossible to achieve.  It will make me a Renaissance (old) man.  And success can be measured across a range of achievement levels.  No one gets out of here alive, so death can’t be considered a failure of life.  I am reminded of the many books I’ve read about Eastern religions where the last third of life is set aside for spiritual pursuits.  At the end of the rat race, wisdom is the only possession worth pursuing.  But I grew up with a Western world mindset.  Reality is a savage land meant to be conquered, not accepted like our friends, the Eastern gurus teach.

Christians love the concept of the eternal soul.  As an atheist I’m not sure souls exist, at least not in the past.  That doesn’t mean we don’t want to fashion our own souls.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t evolving towards creating souls.  Through discipline we program our identities.  Through metaprogramming we program our programming.

JWH – 2/27/10