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Friday, April 9, 2010

Like tears in the rain

The 1981 Harrision Ford movie Bladerunner is one of my favorite movies, and often considered the best science fiction film of all time. In particular, it was praised for it's poetic depiction of profound human issues ceentring upon the meaning of life and death. 
In Bladerunner, the Harrison Ford's character Rick Deckard's job is to track down and kill replicants, or human-like robots. In the movie it is extremely difficult to distinguish between human beings and replicants. The replicants are an example of human-like artificial intelligence - HLAI (as opposed to non-human-like artificial intelligence - NHLAI). As I argued in a previous post, I believe that a human-like artificial intelligence is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, because machines are intelligent, but not consciousness. The climax of Bladerunner (shown the video at the top of this page), ironically, contains further reasons to suggest the unlikelihood of HLAI.

In the scene, which takes place on rooftops far above a gothic Los Angeles of the mid twenty-first century, the replicant (or cyborg) Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) is moments away from death. As he speaks mournfully to the man who has been paid to terminate his life, Rick Deckard, and with rain pouring down his long face, Roy utters his final words.
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 Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.
And so he does. It’s one of the most beautiful, and moving scenes in the history of cinema, in my opinion. Roy is a robot, and his mind is but a conscious computer. There will be no journey to the light for him, no welcome at the gates of Heaven. It’s game over, forever.
It is the position of modern biological science that the robot Roy Batty is not much different from us mortal human beings. We are all programmed to die. Yet what interests me here is the inherent beauty of the moment. The entire scene is a deeply meaningful poetry of words and visual images. It brings forth the anguish and sadness that human mortality and the passing of time brings. Crucially, Rutger Hauer ad libbed these lines. They came from ‘the zone’, as actors call it. This is a state of mind where the actor is unconsciously in a state of flow, such that she barely has to think about what she is doing or saying. Could a machine ever do that? Could a machine poeticise?
Yet the most crucial distinction between man and machine lies our human capacity to empathise with both Rick Deckard and Roy Batty. This is a quintessentially human quality. Thus, even as the movie depicts artificial intelligence, the scene represents that same intelligence in ways - and makes us feel in ways - that are most likely impossible for artificial intelligence to ever ‘replicate.’ As Tobin Hart argues, deep empathy may entail a collapse of the boundary between self and other. If this is correct, it transcends the boundaries of Newtonian worldview and its linear conception of space-time.
Human beings are special, and we do carry a unique gift. That is the ability to feel deeply. I confidently predict that by the time I pass from this world that no machine will be able to do likewise.

Hart, T. (2000b). Deep empathy. In Hart, T., Nelson, P., & Puhakka, K., (Eds.) Transpersonal knowing (pp. 253-270).New York: Suny.


  1. I think it's time to watch the movie again.

  2. Yes, it's a great movie. I never see it here in the DVD shops of Hong Kong or China (I could buy it online, of course, and it's probably downloadable from somewhere on the net - totally illegal, of course).

  3. Have always loved the movie - and the book. Philip K Dick was a visionary, for sure. But like Nancy, I think we'll rent the movie again, too.