We are a people who need a frontier. Carl Sagan provided these words as he reflected on space exploration long before Atlantis launched into space for the last time.
You’ve seen these reflections on Politicolor through our imagined conversation between Cicero and astronaut Michael Collins. As Sagan notes in this video, the space program did not provide “bread on the table” results that changed our everyday. It’s value might be best understood in what it revealed about us and the human experience.
Shifting perspectives reveals as much about previous commitments as it does new ones. We do in fact have plenty of “housekeeping” to do a little closer to the surface of Earth. Do we necessarily have to neglect one or the other? Science dollars are scarce and pushing boundaries doesn’t always require rocket boosters. Another favorite web find last week was Radiolab’s show on “Talking to Machines.” The show focuses on the idea of artificial intelligence and includes interviews of “The Most Human Human” and the world’s most sentient robot. The universe of an individual’s experience and how that influences the way we relate to one another has proven difficult to program.
My favorite bit from the interview with the world’s most sentient robot:
Q: What does electricity taste like?
A: Like a planet around a star.
Nonsense and brilliant. What’s more interesting than the exchange itself is the quantity of data behind the responses, the algorithms that assess what will make a reliable answer, and the debate over what’s a valid question. Many humans approach chatbots with impossible questions like the one above. When is the last time you asked a colleague what electricity tasted like? Or what the letter M looks like upside down? Or if she has a soul? Perhaps being human is a perfectly banal proposition until we encounter these frontiers of physical space and human intelligence.
For more on this topic of what it means to be human, look to Brain Pickings which posted perspectives from an evolutionary biologist, a philosopher and a neuroscientist. The author wanted to better understand the whole of being human and the wholeness of humanity. Whether it’s a question we confront everyday or only on special occasions, our answer to what it means to be human influences much of what we do. Our struggle to bring order to political societies or even our local communities relies on this understanding of wholeness, of being human.
What then do our frontiers, the ones we pursue and the ones we abandon, reveal about who we are, how we think, and what we want for the future?