Weird Science for a Better Living

By

Abak Hussain

It’s kind of a platitude to say “the future is now,” but what else would you call a time like 2024? The year 2001, made immortally famous by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey is now 23 years in the past. Imagine that, the definitive and most iconic vision of the future, now squarely in the past. Full grown adults now walk amongst us who were born after that supposed reality of a sperm-shaped supership speeding towards Jupiter and an evil-AI hijacking the plan from the human astronauts. 

But look, here we are, all these years later, and in this version of reality, there are no lunar bases with Pierre Cardin space furniture, no commercial flights to the moon and beyond, and certainly no interplanetary manned missions. As for the deliciously sinister AI known as HAL though, things are a bit more complicated. Depending on your point of view, the rise of AI can be seen as inspiring or horrifying, but there is absolutely no denying of one thing – artificial intelligence is the word of the year and there is simply no escaping it throughout the course of your day. 

HAL, a crazy concept cooked up in the minds of the likes of Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick way back in the sixties, before the moon landing had even happened, now does not seem at all far off, with people having heart to heart talks with the likes of Siri, Alexa, ChatGPT, and so on. What is clear is that things are changing at a blinding pace globally, and with Bezos regularly firing off Blue Origin’s rockets out into the stratosphere, manned missions to new horizons may not be so far off. They say progress does not happen at a linear pace, it happens exponentially. Like a pan that heats up more and more, lowering the grilling time of each subsequent set of pancakes, the march forward of technology, optimistically labelled “progress,” is getting faster and faster, and frankly, none of us on this planet is in the driver’s seat. 

All of this weird science for a better living that we are seeing around us is the world’s craziest experiment, hurtling us towards some destiny, maybe something as sublime as Kubrick’s Starchild, or maybe just plain old-fashioned extinction, like so many other creatures before us who roamed the Earth and mistakenly thought the planet belonged to them. 

No other species though, in the past, or in the present, has actively pushed the planet and its resources to the brink the way humans have. Mankind, in its ingenuity, went from building simple tools all the way to smartphones and AI and robots and deepfakes and 3D printing and genetic engineering and space stations, but in doing so, our species has gobbled up the world’s resources at the most alarming rate and no amount of warning signs seems to suffice in curbing this recklessness. Call it progress, call it growth, call it what you want, but like an insatiable monster it just keeps moving in a singular direction, never stopping for a cup of tea and quiet contemplation to ask the simple questions like: Is this new invention a good thing? Are we going in the right direction? Will this help the planet, or will it hurt us? For most of human history, we were so completely focused on whether we could, we forgot to ask if we should. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am no troglodyte, and one day, if the robotic AI-overlords should take over, I will gladly lay down my weapons and accept the new world order. Long live the bot. Also, very few things in life are quite as exciting as observing technological progress. After all, the planet we live in was explored, conquered, mapped, and connected a long time ago, Google Maps and military drones being able to look into the most remote corner of any wilderness within seconds. The mystery that once existed when pre-modern man gazed out into the sea and wondered what, if anything, was on the other side – that mystery is long gone. There are no new lands to find for Europeans to exploit resources and commit genocide on the natives. The world is small, small, small. Realtime connectivity of a kind not imaginable even just a few years ago, when we were making prohibitively expensive long-distance phone calls, is now mundane, boring. There is a kind of hedonic treadmill at work here. No matter how new, how wondrous the new tech, in a matter of time it will all be normalized. And then what? Where do we get our kicks? Do we keep pushing forward, or do we turn back, reclaim a bit of clean air, clean water, unplug and go forest-bathing as the Japanese would recommend? 

Technology has certainly made many aspects of life easier, but it is not at all clear that on average it has made people happier. I have no argument with the tremendous leaps in medical knowledge that have enabled the development of vaccines and wiped out diseases that in the past would have been a death sentence. For example, you don’t really hear about smallpox or diphtheria anymore. So clearly, something good is happening, but … have you been to a hospital near you lately? The wards are overflowing, the waiting rooms are bursting at the seams, the doctors are overworked. Mental health is an epidemic and while old diseases are being cured more easily, new ones may be cropping up, along with alarming new statistics. Far more young people are nowadays being diagnosed with various forms of cancer, and this is a strictly modern problem. Because in the final analysis, technology does not work with intention towards the betterment of the human race, it simply grows, like an all-eating organism, and it is never satiated. Therefore, maybe it would be better, once in a while, to reflect on all this progress and remember that beautiful TS Eliot line about midlife jitters: “Time to turn back and descend the stair.” But in the world of weird science, god and Eliot are both muerto, and indeed we dare, we dare, we dare disturb the universe. 

Abak Hussain is Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh

Website | + posts

Tags

More from

Journey Through Paradise

A Yogic Turnaround

In conversation with Dina Begum

Sail Away