Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The dancer from the dance

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The Voyager golden record

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What one piece of pop culture would you use to teach an artificial intelligence what it means to be human?”

When I was growing up, one of the books I browsed through endlessly was Murmurs of Earth by Carl Sagan, which told the story behind the Voyager golden records. Attached to the two Voyager spacecraft and engraved with instructions for playback, each record was packed with greetings in multiple languages, sounds, encoded images of life on earth, and, most famously, music. The musical selection opens with the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, which is about as solid a choice as it gets, and the remaining tracks are eclectic and inspired, ranging from a Pygmy girls’ initiation song to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” (The inclusion of “Johnny B. Goode” led to a legendary joke on Saturday Night Live, purporting to predict the first message from an alien civilization: “Send more Chuck Berry.”) Not included, alas, was “Here Comes the Sun,” which the Beatles were happy to contribute, only to be vetoed by their record company. Evidently, EMI was concerned about the distribution of royalties from any commercial release of the disc—which says more about our society than we’d like any alien culture to know.

Of course, the odds of either record ever being found and played are infinitesimal, but it was still a valuable exercise. What, exactly, does it mean to be us, and how can we convey this to a nonhuman intelligence? Other solutions have been proposed, some simpler and more elegant than others. In The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas writes:

Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

If such thought experiments so often center on music, it’s because we intuitively see it as our most timeless, universal production, even if that’s as much a cultural construct as anything else. All art, Walter Pater says, aspires to the condition of music, in which form and content can’t be separated, so it’s natural to regard it as the best we have to offer.

Ballets Russes

Yet music, for all its merits, only hints at a crucial aspect of human existence: its transience. It’s true that every work of music has a beginning and an end, but once written, it potentially exists forever—if not as a single performance, then as an act of crystalized thought—and it can be experienced in pretty much the form that Bach or Beethoven intended. In that sense, it’s an idealized, aspirational, and not particularly accurate representation of human life, in which so much of what matters is ephemeral and irreproducible. We may never have a chance to explain this to an alien civilization, but it’s likely that we’ll have to convey it sooner or later to another form of nonhuman consciousness that arises closer to home. Assuming we’re not convinced, like John Searle, of the philosophical impossibility of artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before we have to take this problem seriously. And when we do, it’s our sense of mortality and impermanence that might pose the greatest obstacle to mutual comprehension. Unless its existence is directly threatened, as with HAL in 2001, an A.I., which is theoretically immortal, might have trouble understanding how we continue to find meaning in a life that is defined largely by the fact that it ends.

When I ask myself what form of art expresses this fact the most vividly, it has to be dance. And although I’d be tempted to start with The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, there’s an even better candidate: the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, available now for streaming on Hulu, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. (I didn’t even realize this until I looked up its release date shortly before typing this sentence, which is just another reminder of how quickly time slips away.) Just as the Voyager record was a kind of exercise to determine what art we find most worthy of preservation, the question of what to show a nonhuman intelligence is really more about what works can teach us something about what it means to be human. Ballets Russes qualifies as few other movies do: I welled up with tears within the first minute, which juxtaposes archival footage of dancers in their prime with the same men and women sixty years later. In the space of a cut, we see the full mystery of human existence, and it’s all the more powerful when we reflect that these artists have devoted their lives to creating a string of moments that can’t be recaptured—as we all do, in our different ways. An artificial intelligence might wonder if there was any point. I don’t have an answer to that. But if one exists at all, it’s here.

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