Is Fallout 4 predicting a future with AI prejudice?
Tales of the oppressed rising from their chains to overcome their masters are timeless. In these tales, the listener tends to be empathetic to the plight of the oppressed people, building on the generally accepted concepts of freedom and liberty. The practice of slavery is beyond antiquated in a modern society, and the idea is uniformly denounced by the populace at large -- as it should be.
But what if these concepts were applied to beings that were not human, but rather highly developed machines? What if these machines were visibly indistinguishable from real, organic humans, and were programmed with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) so advanced that they emulated human speech and emotions seamlessly? Would society continue to view them as nothing more than mechanical creations, regardless of how their advanced design? Would these fully developed AI mechanizations be assimilated in to humanity, and would they be accepted as one of our own?
If they were to be assimilated, would everyone agree that beings that were created with AI would be equal to organically born humans?
Enter the Commonwealth of Fallout 4.
As of writing this article, I have over six days of gameplay invested into Fallout 4. And no, I have not yet completed the main storyline. This may surprise some people as this game has no multiplayer aspect. But those who are familiar with the franchise, along with The Elder Scrolls series from Bethesda, know this is par for the course.
I have spent a considerable amount of time in the Fallout world, and I can say that the fine folks at Bethesda have crafted a universe as detailed as the lore is deep. Building on the previous entries of the franchise, Fallout 4 takes place in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts after a horrible nuclear apocalypse.
In this alternate future, the ruins of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are referred to as the Commonwealth Institute of Technology (CIT). Below the ruins lies the base of The Institute, a secret organization that specializes in the highest level of technology seen in the franchise. The Institute's prized accomplishment is the advancement of Synths, hyper-realistic androids that have become physically indistinguishable from humans and possess fully-developed Artificial Intelligence (AI).
My Moral Dilemma
While these Synths are capable of independent thought, they are not in possession of true free will and are regarded as property, not people. They are also capable of experiencing emotions, thus rounding out the full human emulation. This has led a group of well-intended abolitionists who call themselves The Railroad to take up the responsibility of freeing these "slaves".
Ok, hold up a sec.
I can plainly see where the narrative wants to take me. The Institute is creating these beings with (almost) all the complexity of humanity and then are withholding any due level of dignity or respect. On the other side of the map, the Brotherhood of Steel is hell bent on destroying not only any Synth they can get in their scopes, but to find and utterly destroy The Institute. The Synths are a heavily oppressed demographic, treated like property, and blamed for any and all cultural ills present in their cobbled-together society. Being outright hunted for simply being what they are isn't just accepted, some people herald it as a righteous civic duty.
This follows the established checklist for social oppression. The narrative is plainly outlining the direction my emotions should be taking me. That I should be dripping with sympathy to the Synth's plight, and that the brunt of my ire should be directed to The Institute, and that The Brotherhood is a bunch of big meanies, and, and....
....and yet I'm feeling most sympathetic towards the efforts of The Institute. So what does this mean? Am I a bad person?
How Close Are We?
What is developing in the Synth narrative of Fallout 4 is what may actually be in the works for computing and robotics as a whole. Every day, advancements are being made in the world of medical prosthesis, making robotic movement more and more human. As you can see in the video below, we are now at the point where we are attaching robotics directly into a machine-human interface:
This video shows how much of the neural pathways have been mapped and how we close we are to emulating the full range of human motion.
How much of that can be applied to an independent robot? Recently Boston Dynamic released a video showing the progress from their latest project, "Atlas." They even go as far as to bully and shove around a few of the robots to demonstrate their balance recovery:
As for a synthetic mind, the most popular decision-making mind could be the Watson Supercomputer, which made its debut to the world on Jeopardy a few years back. Watson is capable of accessing immense databases of knowledge and retrieving information based on the language used to request it. Think of it as a super-amped up search engine like Google, but ignore all the nonsense. From the IBM webpage, this video is currently featured:
While the above seems somewhat cold and mechanical, there have also been advancements in which a Virtual Therapist (named Ellie) has been designed to identify PTSD in military personnel through the use of biofeedback.
This model allows a computer system to track and analyze various aspects of a person's verbal and nonverbal communication and make a determination of that person's mental well-being. Based on real-time input from the patient's speech, body language, vocal fluctuation, and even some subconscious biological reactions, Ellie is able to walk them through a virtual counseling session. The programmers were sure to add in the disclaimer that Ellie is not an actual therapist, just so we're clear that this program will not be making final judgments of patients.
A Leap of Fiction
Admittedly, this is me letting my imagination run a bit wild. (Well, may be more than just a bit.) The above listed instances are completely separate projects with completely different goals, and don't necessarily point to any sort of near-human robots in the future. The prosthesis shown in the first video is only used for recreating the man's arm movements. While (extremely) impressive, this in no way is the herald of the robotic legions rising up from their shackles. Even Atlas requires the aid of QR codes taped to strategic locations around its environment to navigate and interact properly. Likewise with Watson and Ellie, they are impressive feats of engineering, but they are far from sentient.
Even IF these technologies were to be integrated, which I imagine would be beyond a massive undertaking, they would still be limited to what the designers have programmed into them. They would lack the limitlessness of the human mind that we so value.
This is not the first time this concept has been addressed. Aside from the classic literature of Issiac Asimov's I, Robot, there is also the 2001 film A.I. and 2015's Ex Machina. Clearly, the idea of life-like robots has been with us for quite some time and with different notions about their rise. What Fallout 4 is bringing to the discussion is something quite different: a social revolution surrounding the robot's very existence.
Again, I reiterate that I fully comprehend the narrative that is being crafted. I wholly agree with the idea of freedom, free will, independence, and equal rights for all, regardless of any quantifiable demographic. Freedom and Equality for all people!
Synths are NOT people! Within the fiction of the game, they are tools, albeit highly-developed tools, that were manufactured for the purpose of aiding humanity. Yes, they have become capable of fluent speech and Higher Order thought processes, but they are machines. Nothing more, nothing less.
And yet....why do I feel so guilty for regarding them as such?
Gas on the Fire
People are naturally afraid of the unknown. It is a classic tactic used by horror writers -- the big, bad, monster is scarier if he has unknown origins, appearances, and motives. We tend to err on the side of caution and defense. Consider that if we do not allow something into our lives, then our live remain unchanged. If we allow something in that we know nothing about, our lives could change and they could change for the worse.
Should the Institute be simply producing these Synths as a service product, the world may be a bit more receptive to them. Working within the game's established lore, they would amount to little more than an advanced Mr. Handy. It would have taken some time for the citizens to grow accustomed to them, but chances are they would have assimilated in to society just fine.
However, The Institute did not just produce them. They replaced actual civilians with Synth doppelgangers in an effort to influence society through covert infiltration. Therefore, this is not simply the appearance of a new demographic, but that demographic is actively engaging in a hostile campaign. This is certainly not the way to build trust and acceptance!
What eventually develops are three schools of thought. First, the Minutemen are more or less apathetic. They're aware of The Institute and the presence of Synths, but they are more concerned with stabilizing the Commonwealth for the benefit of all. Second, The Brotherhood of Steel sees The Institute and their Synths as a clear and immediate threat. They have vowed to eliminate their existence and send The Institute in its entirety to rubble. Finally, The Railroad has bought in the idea that since they are capable of displaying human emotions that they must be equal to humans. If they are to be equal to humans, then they deserve the same freedoms and therefore must be liberated. All perspectives carry a subjective amount merit, depending on your own value set.
As these different thoughts begin to take hold with more people their perceived vision become more defined. They begin to adopt these beliefs as part of their identity and begin to seek out others who share the same values.
As these groups begin to gain additional members, Regulation Through Identification kicks in and these values become the foundation for new subcultures. As these subcultures grow in strength, they solidify their identity and ultimately become a social movement. Your pre-existing belief and value structure would dictate which of the subcultures (read: Main In-Game Factions) you would gravitate to, and eventually identify with.
In the case of Fallout 4, this would be focused on how you internalized the presence of Synths. Given that, for the most part, humans hold themselves to be superior to the other animals of the earth, anything other than Human would be interpreted as "less" than human. To that effect, it would be logical that anything introduced to a human-dominated world would therefore be viewed as sub-human by default.
Personally, I consider myself to be a compassionate man. I give regularly to different charities, participate in various charitable events, and put effort in to minimizing my impact on the planet. But as I strive to view this situation through an objective lens, I can not help to think, "Yo! Guys! They're ROBOTS!" I mean, I get WHY I am supposed to be sympathetic to their plight. As stated before, no one should be oppressed. I stand against any notion that an individual should be bought or sold like property.
My subconscious mind is telling me that I should be acting against the interests of The Institute and that the actions of The Brotherhood are too hate-filled to be considered a helpful resolution. My conscious mind is telling me that The Institute is the Commonwealth's best chance at reclaiming the pre-war world and healing the planet, and that the other factions lack the cognitive aptitude to think that far in advance.
So I ask again, "Am I a bad person?"
I don't think so. The Synths of Fallout 4 are at their very core machines. They are extremely complex machines, but machines nonetheless. The leap of fiction was necessary in this game to amplify an emotional reaction. However, our reactions are typically unthinking and are made based on immediate information. A more critical response, one that takes into consideration the origin and intent of a Synth, would be to view them as the service machines that they are.
If we were to get to the point where true AI becomes fully realized, we could very well see similar events unfold. Real life Synths could be developed to the point where they become self aware and begin to interact with society at large. If that time ever comes, I hope that the transition is gradual enough for humanity to handle it.