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The persistence of memory: What it means to be human

By Rajeev Srinivasan
April 07, 2016 20:45 IST
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Deep-learning machines are conquering realm after realm of human expertise, but is there a difference between Them and Us?
I think the only thing that distinguishes us from the machines is memory. It is what makes us human, says Rajeev Srinivasan.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

In the wake of the astonishing feat by Google's AlphaGo machine in defeating, nay thrashing 4-1 the world's best player of Go, it is time for us to wonder what it is that is truly human, that which distinguishes us from the machines.

Deep-learning machines are conquering realm after realm of human expertise, from chess to natural language to Go to other domains, and there is no reason to imagine their progress will come to a halt any time soon.

Some of us may worry that the machines will replace us in more and more jobs; not only the menial, 'dirty, dangerous, difficult' jobs that we don't want to do, but also the ones, including the creative ones, that we like to do.

But is there a difference between Them and Us? I used to think that it was obvious, that they could never be like us, that they were just machines. Now I am not so sure.

I think the only thing that distinguishes us from the machines is memory. It is what makes us human. Memory is so fundamental to us that anything that interferes with it is a great loss. In the Abhijnana Sakuntalam, Dushyanta forgets his beloved Sakuntala, and the epic poem is based on that one fact, and, later, his recovery of that memory. In The English Patient, the most poignant detail is the old, well-thumbed volume of Herodotus that the aviator carries with him, with notes about the woman, not his wife, that he loved.

A person who is suffering from dementia, say Alzheimer's disease, and thus losing their memory, slowly but surely becomes somebody else, not the person that we knew. In a way, we are the sum total of our memories, because the chemicals that we are all made of are very simple and very indistinguishable. It is those electrical impulses in our brains that make us who we are.

I find it striking that the three greatest science fiction films of all time -- and they are genuine classics -- all have as a significant scene or even a theme the issue of memory.

In the brilliant Blade Runner, there is the beautiful Rachel, who doesn't know that she is a cyborg, a Replicant, because she has been implanted with memories borrowed from a young woman, now dead. She thinks she is that person. The Replicants know who they are, the limits to their lives, and they also know that Blade Runners, assassins, are out to kill them. The irony in the film is that the quasi-hero, the Blade Runner Deckard, may himself be a Replicant, and we suspect that because the police chief leaves a hint that he knows Deckard dreams of unicorns. 

But by far the most remarkable scene in the film is the 'tears in rain' monologue when the fugitive cyborg Roy Batty, who is dying, says in what may be the most arresting soliloquy in cinema history:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears... in rain. Time to die.'

With that magnificent speech, Batty rises above his Replicant-ness, and he is as human, or more human, than any of us. It is hard to watch that scene without a lump in your throat, and Batty, whom we have seen so far as a cold-blooded, dangerous killer, transcends his cyborg nature and transforms himself: Indeed, he becomes the hero of the film.

Similarly, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, by far the most human character is the computer HAL 9000. Compared to the crewmen Bowman and Poole, who are monotonic and expressionless, HAL is far more genial. But then Bowman realises that HAL has decided to kill all the human astronauts on board the spaceship so that they don't jeopardise its mission. He walks into HAL's 'machine room' and deactivates HAL's 'memory modules' one by one. The effect on HAL is like dementia; it pleads with Bowman to stop, because 'my mind is going.' In the end, HAL is reduced to reciting a child's nursery rhyme.

It is an extraordinary scene. In a film full of spectacular imagery, such as the extended fall through a black hole, and the reappearance of Bowman as a cosmic infant, this one scene, where HAL is losing his mind, stands out in poignancy; and we feel for HAL, and we cheer for it. This is what happens to us, too, when we are hit with Alzheimer's: we too cease to exist in a very real sense, as we lose our memories. We revert to helpless childhood.

Memory is the central theme of yet another great science fiction film, Andrei Tarkovsky's lyrical rendering of Stanislav Lem's Solaris. It portrays a spacecraft that is orbiting Solaris, a planet which happens to be, Gaia-like, sentient: The entire planet, or at least its sea, is an organism. The cosmonauts, unaware of this, explore the planet's surface with radiation, thus annoying and irritating the planetary intelligence.

Its revenge is to manufacture entities from the subconscious and conscious memories of the cosmonauts, and beam them back to the ship. Thus the psychologist's neurotic wife, whom he had loved deeply but who had committed suicide, suddenly appears on board the ship. Realising that she is a mere apparition, he blasts her off in a rocket ship; but the next day she reappears, whole.

Other crew members have other strange apparitions, again the products of their memories, especially painful ones, appearing on board. I remember seeing a monkey briefly when I saw the film, and the scientist guiltily and sheepishly hiding it. Maybe it had been a favorite childhood companion, or maybe something much darker.

Anyway, the psychologist's dead wife realises that she is only a replicant, and commits suicide again by drinking liquid oxygen; but she is soon resurrected by the sentient planet. In the end, the psychologist is reunited with his father, who he knew would not be alive when he returned from his space flight. It is a wonderful film about memory, loss and redemption.

It is this fragile memory that distinguishes us humans from the machines. It is what makes us human in the first place.

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