I’m Only Humanoid

"Star Trek: lt.cmd.Data" | Art by Spiritius. Used with permission.
I do not trust robots, least of all robots with artificial intelligence. There are a million examples from science fiction (which is obviously the most reliable source for determining the future of Earth) why robots with artificial intelligence are a terrible idea—the Terminator, Cybermen, Hal, Ultron, and the Matrix, to name a few.

Despite the decades of fictional warnings, there are companies currently creating actual, functioning robots with artificial intelligence who, when interviewed, have expressed their analysis of humanity as inferior and worthy of either destruction  or placement in zoos.

The idea of robots reasoning on their own scares the crap out of me. It frightens me because compassion and empathy cannot be programmed; reason without those qualities is, as the books and movies warn us, dangerous. It cannot see the whole picture, and decisions made without all of the pertinent information (which AI always assumes it has), are not usually helpful. When you have a unit that believes it has access to all information, is convinced of its own superiority and infallibility, and does not have emotions like fear or sympathy to keep it in check, I can only see one of two futures; either it runs for president on a platform of racism and terror, or it takes over and destroys the world. Because that’s the only logical conclusion to the mess we’ve made of our planet.

Failure is, arguably, one of the most important human experiences.

But then there’s Data.

Data is the Spock of Star Trek: Next Generation. He’s also an android. Like Spock, Data finds humans fascinating. His fascination, however, is not a curiosity like Spock’s is, but is desirous of true understanding. He wants to be human. And he sees us in a unique way—through the lens of an outsider who wants to belong and to feel what we feel. His quest offers deep insight into humanity.

By his very existence, Data poses the question, “What does it mean to be human?” He has a lot of human qualities, and the fact that his crewmates view him as one of their own and are willing to defend his safety, adds another level of authenticity to these qualities.

Data makes me wonder if it’s enough to be considered human by others to be defined as one. For me—a person of faith in a Creator—having been made in the likeness of God, the presence of a soul, reason, intellect, and free will are necessary to my definition of humanity. For others, the definition might involve fewer or other qualities. Most people would probably agree that some of the basic ingredients required for a human are: genetic code, sentience, being alive, and being finite. Data doesn’t fit any of these requirements, so as much as he tries, he can never be technically human.

But here’s what Data does have… He seeks to be more like his creators every day. He wants to understand more than just the nuts and bolts of what makes a person—he wants to know what it means to truly live. So, he identifies pursuits that he observes to be “human;” art in all of its forms, relationships, owning pets, tasting and appreciating food… His inability to really grasp any of these things, to me, is very human. I love food and I’m good with animals, but I fail to grasp other human pursuits. Like poetry—forget it. I can’t read it and I can’t write it. I don’t get it, and sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on an enjoyable human experience. Then I read a poem and remember that I’m fine without it.

On the other hand, I think that, like many humans, my inability to comprehend and appreciate all the intricacies of life and my desire to experience my passions more deeply makes me more human. By wanting to explore everything, Data emphasizes his inhumanity. Data’s constant missing the mark on being human shows what humanity is supposed to look like in two ways. First, when you see clearly what something definitely isn’t supposed to be, it gives you a clearer sense of what it should be. Second, and perhaps more important, Data experiences detachment from failure.

Data wants to understand more than just the nuts and bolts of what makes a person.

Failure is, arguably, one of the most important human experiences.  Humans have to come to terms with their failures—to accept the feelings that come along with them, but not get stuck in them. I used to feel every single one of my failures intensely—I would become mortified that I made a mistake. That still happens once in a while, and more often I’m more detached from them. The older I get (and the more parenting I do), the more I recognize failure as a wonderful opportunity for growth. It’s an opportunity to learn how I can do things better next time, how I never want to feel “those” feelings again so I avoid that brand of failure in the future, and how my actions affect other people.

Perhaps the most significant aspect to failure is the opportunity to experience mercy and forgiveness, and even to deepen my human relationships. Interestingly enough, this happens even for Data—well, for the humans with whom he’s in relationship. They become more attached to him in his failures; and while he can’t feel the results, his relationships are growing. His failures (and all of ours) put us on a more level playing field with others. They make a person vulnerable, accessible, understandable. I learn more about myself and others by the way they and I deal with their failures than I could from almost any other experience.

Data is made of circuits and android things; he will always respond to every situation with logic and scientific curiosity. Success and failure mean the same things to him—there is no emotion attached. But, like us, he learns more about what it means to be human from failure than from any success that he might have.

So, being right doesn’t mean everything, and being wrong can mean a ton. I accept that I don’t always have to get it right. And I don’t have to get upset about it. Data’s humanoid, but I’m only human.

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Jen is a pastoral minister, wife, mother, ninja and writer. She loves sci-fi, superheroes, and classic literature, and prefers to share her Catholic faith through such lenses. Her book, "Comic Con Christianity" is available from Paulist Press.
Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

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