Machine Learning, AI, and Blade Runner 2049 – What Defines Humanity and Consciousness?

This Sunday I watched Blade Runner 2049.  While I could spend hours extolling the imagery, cinematography, the incredibly immersive world, and the performances of Ryan Gosling and Robin Wright; the most interesting aspect is how Blade Runner 2049 expands on the fundamental philosophical conversation of what defines humanity and consciousness and the future of AI.  Where in the original Blade Runner of the 1980’s it is an interesting subtext making Roy Batty and the renegade Nexus 6 replicants sympathetic, it is by far one of the most interesting and profound subjects of the current film.  Blade Runner 2049 presents it in such a way that it is all the more relatable, personal, and interesting today.

If you have not seen Blade Runner 2049, and probability says you have not judging by the attendance in my local theater and the reported ticket sales opening weekend, be warned SPOILERS AHEAD in the name of intellectual discourse.

In Blade Runner 2049 one of the most intriguing and thought provoking characters is not necessarily Ryan Goslings introspective K struggling with his perceived identity, and is certainly not Harrison Ford’s Deckard, but Joi.  In Blade Runner 2049 Joi is K’s combination holographic home assistant and girlfriend played by Ana De Armas.  Aside from delivering some of the most profound lines of the film, which I will get to, Joi gives us a practical and relatable glimpse at a future of AI which blurs the bounds of intelligence and consciousness.  In 1982 sitting in front of an Apple II the AI of the WOPR or Skynet is an overpowering, monolithic, and abstract concept and Roy Batty and Pris are a far flung fantasy.  In 2017 Westworld’s Dolores and Maeve while thought provoking are really no more relatable than the Nexus-series of 1982.  However, as I turn to call into the kitchen to ask Alexa, “When is the next episode of Westorld?” or “How much time is left on the smoker or the sous vide?” Suddenly Joi gives us a glimpse at an AI future that is both poignant and personal.

One of the most profound bits of dialog from the film has K reading files of DNA data, and as the Gs As Ts and Cs go scrolling by Joi makes an observation as to how K and all of humanity are individually defined by these symbols.  It is this code that defines us.  She then follows up with a statement to the effect that she herself is defined by only two – 1 and 0, to which K observes makes her all the more elegant.  We are told that love defines us, and a statement is made in the film Blade Runner 2049 that to sacrifice for something greater is a most human trait.  I love my children.  But a cynic could easily ask themselves is it altruistic love or Darwinistic programming that drives us.  Is a sacrifice for their sake just a deep subroutine to ensure my code propagates itself to version 2.0 and 2.1?  Joi risks, and ultimately sacrifices herself for K.  Throughout the film we never really question Joi’s individuality or relationship with K until the very end when we are introduced to a 50 foot interactive marketing hologram for the Joi product.  Were her actions love, rational choice based on programming, or a glitch?  Can the same question be asked of us?

The ultimate fate of Deckard is by far the least important question we are left with by the end of Blade Runner 2049.  The more interesting questions are actually things like: “What defines humanity and consciousness?”, “What is the nature of identity?”, and “What is the real future of AI?”  Blade Runner 2049 is a visually and audibly stunning film that can easily stand on artistic merit alone, but its world, dystopian as it is, is instantly recognizable and relatable.  I’ll ask this as well – we have grown up with two disparate and equally extreme notions of the end state of AI- Skynet, the Matrix, and the Buttlarian Jihad or Westworld and Blade Runner.  Ultimately are these really the only two logical ultimate outcomes, Subservience or Dominance?