You know the word “chap” as a British-ism, like “bloke” or “mate,” a casual reference to a male acquaintance. The diminutive form, “chappie,” would suggest an added level of bonhomie. The words (“chap” and “chappie”) have currency in South Africa, which, in futuristic vision, is the setting of a 2015 movie titled Chappie. In the movie, the sobriquet is applied to a robot.
As of this writing, the movie is on Netflix. Following are some thoughts concerning it. I don’t think what follows constitutes a significant spoiler, at least as to the plot line. Perhaps so, however, as to philosophical elements. But I’m guessing that if you find these observations interesting, you’ll be more inclined, not less, to see the movie yourself.
An intriguing proposition among techno-geeks is that fully functional artificial intelligence might be indistinguishable from human intelligence. If so, it would mean in essence that we’ve created human life ourselves, through our own ingenuity. The idea could only hold true, however, if the mechanical functioning of the human brain accounts for all the elements of human consciousness.
A conundrum well-known among philosophers is the so-called “mind-body problem.” The question is this. Are the processes of our minds strictly bodily functions, particularly the brain’s? Or are those processes a function in part of some additional element?
Whatever is true of our brains, certainly our minds are not mere computational devices. Our thinking occurs in an environment of consciousness. Our consciousness includes elements of outward-directed “intentionality,” subjective experience (“qualia”), consciousness of consciousness, continuity, and others. It is not apparent how our consciousness could be entirely explained by brain functioning. If the brain is only a really fast, really sophisticated computer, how could it give rise to consciousness? Why doesn’t my lap-top have some low-level self-awareness?
On the other hand, if there is something else going on other than mere brain functioning, that means the mind’s functioning is informed by something outside the natural body, and that implies some sort of supernatural presence. And that just doesn’t fly with some people, who find any suggestion of supernatural reality anathema. That broad view of reality could be inhabited by God! If one is committed a priori to an anti-metaphysical stance, it is necessary to believe (on faith, actually) that every phenomenon is explainable by the complicated movement of matter over time. Even phenomena like consciousness.
This philosophical quandary is fundamentally involved in speculation about the potential for “strong AI:” self-aware decision-making, based on true learning, exercised with free will, in a machine. Next stop: immortality. Science hasn’t taken us to this, obviously, so it’s a matter of speculation whether it ever could. But it’s not idle speculation. Writers of movies, plays, and novels have imagined it, both ways, and so we get interesting movies like Chappie.
I’ve written previously about movies of this sub-genre. On the question whether the mind equals the brain, Advantageous and many other fictional stories say “no.” Ex Machina and Blade Runner seem to say “yes,” but with ambiguity, and that nowadays seems to be the more satisfying speculation.
Chappie resoundingly joins the “yes” camp, and it does so in an entertaining way. Chappie is told by “Maker” (its programmer) not to commit crimes. So the gangster into whose hands Chappie falls (“Daddy”) tells Chappie that all those high-end cars out there are his, and commissions an eager-to-please Chappie to go “recover” them.
On the metaphysics, I will say that Chappie goes a step further than many of the novels I’ve read and movies I’ve seen. Chappie speculates not only that AI produces human-like consciousness, but that it is transferable. And not only is AI transferable to a new host, but so is consciousness originated in an organic human host. Our minds and our consciousness are the software to the hardware of our brains. And as with computer “intelligence,” the software is wholly transferable to replacement hardware.
And so, following the logic of Chappie, we create human life, in our own image. Unlike with the human 1.0 version, however, this life is immortal, and for a bonus, so is our own merely human life. Organic and inorganic shells for that life are interchangeable. Immortality is achieved not just by having a non-aging mechanical host, but by being transferable from one such host to another.
See the movie, because it’s funny and entertaining. But understand the metaphysical implications, too.