When the snow has finally melted off and you begin to make your way around the lawns and the gardens that surround the farmyard you will often discover an egg that has been laid right out in the open. It happens right around this time every year — the chickens are excited by their new found freedom, they wander further away from the henhouse and when it is time to lay, rather than return to the nesting boxes where they have deposited their eggs all winter long they simply drop them where they are; under the trampoline, at the edge of the foundation, at the base of the split rail fence posts. I ask the kids to grab an egg basket and round them up and for the next half hour or so as I go about my own work the children make a game out of it, seeing who can find the most. It was only after seven years of watching this annual rite before it dawned on me, that this was the likely origin of the Easter Egg Hunt, a form that followed a function. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’d certainly be willing to bet on it. So many of the traditions and habits that we carry with us are based on things that are hidden in plain sight. In a world divorced from nature and focused on all things modern and linear we often lose sight of the origins of our own behavior, rooted firmly in the cycles of the past.
I get together with a small group of men every so often to talk about a book, an author or a topic that we choose at random. I am the youngest of the four and it is one of those times when I get the opportunity to listen to men who are far more accomplished and knowledgeable and when I come out of our get-togethers with enough to keep my mind busy for weeks. On Monday afternoon we met to discuss Artificial Intelligence for a couple of hours because the Colonel had recently read a book that caused him some sleepless nights. I read the book on his suggestion and the other two — one a leading figure in the early development of robotics in the U.S. and the other a retired software developer who made his fortune before the Dot-Com bubble burst — came with only their experience, which is to say a great deal. The discussion was launched on the basis of this question — “Is it possible for an artificial intelligence to become self-aware?” Before we got the chance to start in on the thought the retired software developer posed a point to keep in mind, “What is life?” Sometimes I think that we assume a great deal more than we actually know for a fact. The question, on its face seems very simple. To be alive comes with a set of limitations that form a consensus — it must grow, it must die, it must consume and it must reproduce. Beyond those the definitions become somewhat sketchy — is self awareness possible for a single celled organism or a tree? If reproduction is a defining marker, what of those things that do not? As we began to rattle off the characteristics of what we each considered life to be, the retired software developer smiled and waited. This was obviously a question he had been thinking on for a great deal longer than the rest of us, and after a pause he said that he didn’t think we would know the answer for centuries. Hundreds of years before we would have a definitive answer to an obvious question. The conversation moved on; quantum computing and the mind-blowing possibilities of qubit processing. What happens when we pair super computing speeds with robotics and develop machines that cannot only handle theoretic possibilities but put them into action in the physical world. How a superior problem solving technology might fix a problem like eliminating warfare and violence if the parameters are not extremely specific — hint; no humans, no warfare. Each of us spoke in response to the questions raised, every man with his own field of expertise bringing a detail into the discussion that propelled it further on in ways that none of us would have been able to do alone. We ate crackers and cheese while each other took turns, we sipped our ice water and behaved in all ways like living beings doing something of our own free will, completely random and unscripted, the words filling the sunlit room for over two hours but underneath it all the idea crept in as subplot to our discussion. How do we know that what we are thinking is our thoughts at all? And what is life?
Before we broke it up and went our separate ways I brought up the dystopian future that was in store for us if we allowed for a world where human beings became obsolete to their own creations. Lately there has been a great deal of attention given to the concept that one day in the not too distant future human beings will no longer be required to work, that every skill set and occupation will be rendered useless with the advance of robot workers. There was a Youtube video going around last month of an automated bricklayer that outpaces the most skilled masons by a factor of 3X, that in the wake of mandated wage hikes corporations have finally found a price point for automated kiosks and burger flipping machines that could dismiss with employees in totality. To me work is essential to my concept of self. I could not imagine a world in which I would wake up and find that every task and chore that I look forward to with joy were to be suddenly taken off my schedule. That, however, seems to be the path that we are headed toward and the result, I posited, would be obvious to something that could think on a level beyond our own. Humans are superfluous. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics came up as an assurance from the robotics pioneer and he made certain that we all knew that anything done by an A.I. would be programmed to take into account the well being of its creators.
“A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First of Second Law.” -Isaac Asimov
I pointed out the way that humans had altered themselves during my lifetime, the rise in morbid obesity and the associated health risks, the damage to the environment and its downstream effects on health, etc. What if an advanced A.I. were tasked with fixing our problems and had the Three Laws of Robotics stamped into its digital limbic system, would it not be possible that they could, for our own benefit and in line with its orders strip away from us all freedom, all the choices and inclinations that make us human? What if something that has the capacity to process more data than there are atoms in the Universe solves the problems of mankind without taking into account the things that make us what we are. Would it be possible? As the light in the room reflected off the books on the shelves and the half empty glasses of water everyone was unusually silent. The robotics pioneer asked his Google Home unit if it was possible. It responded by giving him directions to the nearest store where batteries were sold and there was an uncomfortable laughter that filled the room.
Last week we took down the buckets and removed the spiles from the maples. We brought in the totes, broke down the evaporator and bottled syrup. We power washed and Sun-dried everything on the blacktop in front of the garage barn, took the snow chains off the tractor and moved the hogs with their new litters to the big paddock where they could spread out. The cows are still confined to the sacrifice until the grass gets up a little more and all along the top strand of barbed wire there are round balls of brown cow hair where they rub themselves to scratch their itch, a string of evenly spaced, furry knots the size of marbles and every morning the birds are parked on the open spaces between them busily pulling the hairs into their beaks so they can line their nests. We ran out of hay again this year and I need to either thin them down some or find another income source if I am to keep the herd intact going into next winter. We’ve finally got an entire generation produced with the white mane that we’ve been coaxing out of their line, year by year and I’d hate to send them off to auction just as we’re making some progress with the genetics we’ve been tinkering with. We had a family come up from Boston last Sunday for their four year old’s birthday. He desperately wanted to see cows and they found us on the Internet and asked if they could come up for the day with their children. They were taken with how docile the cows were, how slow they moved when we approached and how they allowed the small children to touch them and run their hands across their heads and backs. The piglets were running free across the orchard and I grabbed one for them to hold and before they left they bought some syrup and some ground beef and it took a while before they could coax the kids back into the car, so fascinated were they with the flocks of chickens running around free, dropping eggs for the kids to find as if they knew what Easter was.
One Easter when our oldest son was only three or four there was an Easter Egg Hunt at the American Legion in our hometown. It was scheduled to start at 11am and we made plans to drive over right after church services. We got there about a quarter to 11 and there were crowds of adults and children swarming the fields and the Legion Hall and even as we pulled into the parking lot it was obvious that no matter what the official start time was supposed to be, the hunt was all but over. My wife was crestfallen and our son was in tears but that was the way things were those days. You couldn’t tell anyone ‘no’ anymore. No parents demanded that their children wait and since they came early why not just let them have at it? The people who follow the rules, who rely on tradition and formality, customs and mores were obsolete and with them, their celebrations and rites. I saw an article not long ago where a local fire department in suburban Pennsylvania was suspending their annual Easter Egg hunts for the foreseeable future, not because of the children, but the unruly and careless parents. There was a new tradition taking its place and it was based not on the common courtesies of the past or the quaint concepts of rules and guidelines, but on who got what first. Take, use up, grab and own. The Laws of Consumers. The future forgets the past and the observances of Nature in her endless cycles are so deeply buried that we forget everything we ever knew, the origins of who we are. I don’t know if Easter Egg Hunts were based on farm kids rounding up springtime eggs or if I am simply making a connection from disparate bits, but what we find isn’t always what we are looking for, even if we think it is. And for a human being using what few brain cells I have left, that will have to be enough.
I am up every morning before the Sun rises, my energy returning with the lengthening day. As I sit with my coffee in the translucent dawn writing this I pause to watch as the first light plays across the trees behind the sugarhouse; golden-rose, warm and alive. Outside the roosters are at it as if it were their job. They’ve been replaced by alarm clocks and I-phone wake-up tones and their presence in the factory farms is superfluous so they find their only refuge in places like this, the eddies and backpools of the past that dot the edges of the modern world, until they too, vanish forever. The cows want out, there is wood to be split and stacked for sugaring next year, and at some point today I will send the kids out with a basket to scour the yard and the barns for stray eggs as if we invented the idea ourselves. There is plenty of life out there even if we don’t know how to define it yet and until we know I will keep looking, even if something comes along that can do the job better than I.