For our third installment of this month's Reader's Den, let's take a look at what Rudy Rucker's Software has to say about humans, technology, and what it means to exist.
In several places in the text, the author explores the idea of software being analogous to the soul. When Sta-Hi meets an attractive robot-remote stewardess on his way to the moon, she gives him a crash course in this new, technological metaphysics:
"You wanted to know who I am. I gave you one answer. A robot-remote. A servo-unit operated by a program stored in a bopper spaceship. But... I'm still Misty-girl, too. The soul is the software, you know. The soft ware is what counts, the habits and the memories. The brain and the body are just meat, seeds for the organ-tanks."
Adding further complexity to the issue of whether a robot can be considered alive is the issue of free will. While Misty-girl appears to act under her own agency, she is nevertheless tied to BEX, the big bopper where her brain tapes are stored.
In another, later scene in the novel, Cobb (whose consciousness has since been implanted in a robotic body) attempts to justify the death of Sta-Hi's father:
"A person is just hardware plus software plus existence. Me existing in flesh is the same as me existing on chips. But that's not all. Potential existence is as good as actual existence. That's why death is impossible. Your software exists permanently and indestructibly as a certain possibility, a certain mathematical set of relations. Your father is now an abstract, non-physical possibility. But nevertheless he exists!"
It seems that Cobb's new self has come to believe in a kind of immortality, made possible through science and technology, to the point where death is merely an abstraction that can be explained away.
Finally, in one of the most poetic and striking passages in Software, Cobb "reawakens" in his new robot body to a fragmented data stream of memories from his past life:
This sort of problem, however, was only a small part of Cobb’s confusion, only the tip of the iceberg, the edge of the wedge, the snout of the camel, the first crocus of spring, the last rose of summer, the ant and the grasshopper, the little engine that could, the third sailor in the whorehouse, the Cthulhu Mythos, the neural net, two scoops of green ice-cream, a broken pane of glass, Borges’s essay on time, the year 1982, the state of Florida, Turing’s imitation game, a stuffed platypus, the smell of Annie Cushing’s body, an age-spot shaped like Australia, the cool moistness of an evening in March, the Bell inequality, the taste of candied violets, a chest-pain like a steel cylinder, Aquinas’s definition of God, the smell of black ink, two lovers seen out a window, the clack of typing, the white moons on fingernails, the world as construct, rotten fish bait on a wooden dock, the fear of the self that fears, aloneness, maybe, yes and no...
While the idea of human consciousness existing within a synthetic body might seem abhorrent or even impossible to some, the above paragraph provides a whimsical conjecture of what such an existence might be.
- Would you agree that a person is simply "hardware plus sofware plus existence" or is there something more?
- Do you think immortality will ever be possible through science?
- What are some of your favorite passages from the book?
This online book discussion is part of Sci-Fi Summer Reading 2011. Find more science fiction-themed programming at bit.ly/scifisummer.