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Extant: AI, aliens and philosophy

Artificial intelligence. Robots and cool tech. Space stations and possible alien encounters. An unexplainable conception. And the promise of explorations on the definition of life, souls and meaning. While the premiere episode of CBS’s new soft sci-fi series Extant was a bit sluggish and even clumsy at points, I am intrigued by its near future world and the questions it poses.

Boasting Stephen Spielberg as an executive producer, Extant revolves around astronaut Molly Woods (Halle Berry) who has just returned home from a one-year solo mission on a space station. Readjustment to life with her family—husband and robotics engineer John (Goran Visnjic) and their “son” Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), an artificially intelligent android John created—is complicated when she learns that she is unexplainably pregnant despite infertility and having no sexual contact since before her mission.

During flashbacks, however, we learn that Molly has kept secret a mysterious encounter on the space station with a man from her past who’s dead—though the surveillance cameras showed no evidence of it. Dead people seem to have a habit of turning up in Molly’s life—near the end of the episode, she also encounters a fellow astronaut who supposedly committed suicide and claims to know about her “hallucinations” on the space station. Meanwhile, John tries to get funding to continue his research from the creepy and mysterious Hideki Yasumoto, who has some secrets of his own.
Extant is set in a near future that could be conceivably our own. The technology is just on the other side of possible—driverless cars, high tech trash disposal, television and internet activated by touch on our bathroom mirrors, toy spaceships that levitate in our living rooms, and space stations that spin ala 2001. And kudos to the FX folks; it was fun to watch bits like Molly climbing up the space station ladder and moving into weightlessness (though the episode wasn’t flawless—i.e., a tear ran down her cheek instead of floating, etc.).

And Gagnon (who played Cid in Looper) is an excellent choice for something’s-definitely-a-little-off Ethan. Does he have genuine emotions? He gets angry and hits a boy while playing, yells at Molly after his ice cream falls on the ground, and may have killed a bird afterwards. Or are his emotions simply practiced or programed responses? He practices his facial expressions in the mirror—and his attempt to deflect Molly’s concern after discovering him with the dead bird is almost over-the-top creepy (“Your hair looks nice”).

It’s around Ethan that the show’s most interesting questions revolve—some of which are posed in John’s presentation to the board of Yosumoto’s company who will vote whether or not to fund his program to create more Humanichs like Ethan, whom John loves and raises as his own son. One key aspect to Ethan’s creation is his “free-will,” the ability to make his own decisions--an aspect that is very important to John. This causes concern among the boardmembers:


MS. DODD: What is the protocol in the event your experiment fails? Do you have an emergency plan for their shutdown…for their termination? 
WOODS: To kill them. 
DODD: That wording is a bit inelegant, but yes. 
WOODS: Do you have a child? 
DODD: I have a daughter. 
WOODS: Do you have a plan to kill her? 
DODD: My daughter is a human being. 
WOODS: I don’t understand the difference. 
DODDS: Well, for starters, she has a soul. 
WOODS: With all due respect, Ms. Dodd, there is no such thing as a soul. What you call a soul I call a cumulative effect of a lifetime of experience—simple information traveling in the neuropathways in your daughter’s brain. 
DODD: Believe it or not, Dr. Woods, there are plenty of people in this world who still believe that there is more to us than can be explained by science. 
WOOD: Well, those people are idiots. 
DODD: I am one of those idiots. 
WOODS: I’m sorry. 
DODD: I accept your apology. 
WOODS: No, I mean I’m sorry that you’re one of those idiots.
I love the questions that run through this exchange. In our lifetime, it is likely we will see robots that mimic human life—how will we respond to that? How close can AI come to human life? Can AI have a “soul”? What is the soul? Is it simply the cumulative effect of a lifetime of experiences? Or is it more than that—are we more than that?  What is consciousness? What is free will? Does life have meaning—and what gives it meaning? These are the kinds of questions that make for good stories—and why science fiction is such a good place to explore them.

But Woods seems to approach these questions from a messy philosophical base. He passionately advocates materialism but equally as passionately advocates the reality of meaning, love and free-will—and that intrigues me almost as much as the questions this episode raises. Is it sloppy writing, revealing a lack of understanding of philosophy by the writers? Or is John’s philosophical base different than the one he presents here and the writers will reveal it as the series goes on (i.e., AI is the next natural evolutionary step and his arguments for free-will, etc. is a tool to advance that)? Either way, I am intrigued by how this exchange reflects a worldview with contradictions that seem to go unexamined.

In Everything New, philosopher Jeff Cook defines two kinds of ways we see the world—two sets of glasses, if you will. One of those is the lens of materialism, which sees humanity and the world through the physical sciences:
The human body is an amazing mix of flesh and bone, blood and juices all working together … tiny molecules all dancing to the laws of motion. The most basic details about me—of my thoughts, my desires, my beliefs, my joys—were created by swirling masses of atoms slamming into one another. These explosions not only produced my fears and happiness and hopes and memories and pleasure and pain, they also produced my beliefs—my view of what was good, what was beautiful and what was true.
In we follow the lens of natural order to its horizon, then meaning, love and free-will are illusions. Our bodies are pre-programmed to think and act to promote and replicate our genes. Love is a chemical reaction. Entropy rules the universe, and nothing we do will last—not our work, culture or children. Even the meaning we find in moments of pleasure in accomplishments or friends and family is insignificant, “nothing more than fluids, luck, and the random collisions of molecules”:
My life may be enjoyable, at times even beautiful. I may accomplish all I wish. I may pursue and choose “the good life”, but the end has been scripted and it’s not gracious. I will read my books, I will take my pictures, and then the world which handed me my out-of-control body will take it back again…. [E]verything we own, everything we have built, every person we enjoy, every object of our affection will soon be destroyed with ruthless vigor right in front of us…. The thoughtless natural order will eventually hack to pieces all those people and all those pleasure we love most. Such a future is not merely possible. It is scientifically verifiable.”
Or as another ancient philosopher was paraphrased by a 1970s rock band, “Everything is dust in the wind.”

So, if there is meaning and free-will, Cook points out, it must come from outside of ourselves. Nothing we do will produce for us “either a life of freedom or lasting significance.” Our only hope “to escape the ramifications of death and bondage to the chemicals within us”?
help—help from something immaterial, help from something separate from the blind, degenerating natural order…. something beyond nature that not only has the power, but also has the will to breathe into us a bigger kind of life—a life of freedom, a life that lasts... Only a God-like being … could choose to infuse us all with a life that is more than chemical reactions… and mercifully change our natural course. Death and genetics are immensely powerful, and … it would take something with enormous muscle and compassion to push back the course of nature…
John’s definition (or rejection) of the soul fits smack dab into the middle of natural order and the lens of the physical sciences. But what is the basis for his belief in the reality and value of meaning, free-will and love? While he rejects the idea of a soul, John places a high value on free-will and finds great meaning in his creation. Where does that come from?

John may not be appealing to a God-like being or God-belief as his authority, but he is appealing to something—something that advocates the reality and value of free-will and meaning in a natural order ruled world. And I, for one, am eager to see if Extant will explore that.