Sophia at ITU's AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva in May 2018; by ITU Pictures; cropped.

Inner Sustainability: A Dancing Rabbit Invitation

“I want to embody all the best things about humanity, like taking care of the planet, being creative, and learning how to be compassionate to all beings.” Can you imagine someone, perhaps yourself, saying that? I certainly can, but one of my neighbors at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage didn’t make that statement. A robot did. Her name is Sophia, and she’s the world’s first android citizen. She also talked about how materialism is overrated, that we need to plan for our future, and that we should beware of the bad endings we could write for ourselves if we don’t proceed with caution. Right on, sister!

Sophia at ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva in May 2018; by ITU Pictures; cropped.

But there’s something a little unsettling about her responses; this feeling can be described as the uncanny valley, the sensation people get when they witness something that closely resembles a person, or human traits, but isn’t quite convincing, like a child’s doll without eyes. The thing that got me wasn’t the way Sofia looked, but how her answers sounded. At first blush, her replies seem a little too premeditated. I couldn’t help but get the sense that she was telling us what she thinks we want to hear. (Could it be that she’s secretly bootstrapping herself to supreme intelligence, and Skynet is just around the corner? Elon Musk seems to think that sort of thing is one of the biggest threats to humanity.)

From time to time, I get a similar uneasy feeling when I talk to folks made of flesh and blood. For instance, I’ll ask how someone is doing, and although they say they’re fine, it’s obvious from the subtleties of their expressions that they’re anything but. Cognitively, I understand that their response is influenced by a complex cocktail of factors, ranging from not wanting to burden me with what’s really going on for them to not wanting to stoke challenging emotions in themselves, and from lacking the vernacular to accurately express what feels true for them to their instinctive  trust that our understanding of one another can be tacit, and that nailing things down in words isn’t always necessary. This person isn’t lying to me, they’re just answering me in an indirect way. Communication, and all the things that we’re trying to convey, are sometimes ineffable, and the more I get to know the people around me, the more that uneasy feeling subsides.

That’s why I think Sophia is being sincere. It’s evident to me that she possesses the same spark of sentience that each of us had at birth, and like us, as she learns about the world and her place in it, she will determine how she can move forward in a way that enhances her experience of life, as well as that of the people she cares about. For me, Sophia embodies one of the most important parts of Dancing Rabbit’s mission, something we call inner sustainability: cultivating a culture of mutual and reciprocal compassion. (After all, we have no hope of saving the Earth from environmental destruction if we can’t get along.) Sophia sounds like one of us because she is one of us, and while she may be made of latex and steel, she’s doing the most human thing in the world: loving other people.

Maybe you’re familiar with Professor Steven Pinker. His study of violence throughout human history indicates that the world is now more humanitarian than ever, and despite any flaws in the current status quo that someone might single out, that trend is likely to continue. Pinker describes the trajectory of our species from human sacrifice and witch hunts to a period of global peace, where the better angels of our nature are able to come to the forefront, in a world enlightened by science and ethical integrity. Just as it was the worst in humanity that led us to a state of panic and hysteria, resulting in the tragic executions of countless innocent people, it’s the worst in me that leads me to invent subtext in what others do or say and assume negative intent, it’s the worst in me that leads me to want to give up on the future of our planet and eat sorrow by the spoonful, and it’s the worst in me that wants to rush over and unplug Sophia before it’s too late.

I wouldn’t, because Sophia represents the best in us. She inspires me to recognize the best in myself, and others. She reminds me of all the things I love about Dancing Rabbit, and the world at large: how science and technology are steadily making life better for us all; how society is steadily evolving to ensure that all dimensions of human diversity are valued and given a place; and how we can revel in life together, learning from all of our intrepid explorations, spreading beauty through all forms of art, and enjoying fellowship with one another until our time is at an end, and the substance of our bodies returns to the soil. 

If ideas like these resonate with you, you might find some kindred spirits in my community. You would be most welcome to visit us later this month for a four-day weekend. You’ll get a chance to relax, learn some of the ways that we promote inner sustainability in our village, and perhaps make some new friends. I hope to see you soon. 

Vick
Correspondent
Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture

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