In Brian Michael Bendis‘ story arc for Marvel’s 2013 graphic novel Age of Ultron, we are presented with an unexpected present that one would initially guess to be an alternate future. The artificial intelligence run amok known as Ultron has succeeded in destroying most of humanity. The handful of people who have survived in the world’s major cities have an even smaller handful of heroes among them, hiding underground and attempting to form a strategy to overcome Ultron. While Bendis deals with many themes in these pages, one of the most prominent is the need for what we view as progress. Bendis makes us privy to the internal dialogue of Hank Pym, the Avenger known as Ant-Man and the creator of Ultron, as he wrestles with the potential to benefit humanity that he sees in the concept of the Ultron artificial intelligence. The reader is left feeling…skeptical…of what Pym wants to achieve, understanding that his hopes are mis-placed. However, his motivations are clearly pure. He wants to help.
When faced with this extinction of humanity, Wolverine makes a more difficult choice. He wrestles with the decision of whether or not to travel back in time and end Pym’s life before he can create Ultron. The reader is even more dubious of these intentions, but Wolverine sees no other real alternative. The choice between one life or millions of lives is clear to him in that moment.
In the 2015 cinematic version of Age of Ultron, Tony Stark encourages Bruce Banner to assist in exploring the artificial intelligence that will become Ultron. He presses Banner to accept that this is who they are, the “mad scientists,” and must do what they do.
That is the intelligence that I would find artificial.
C.S. Lewis points out a sound philosophical truth: just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. Yet, the logical fallacy that “can” must necessarily lead to “do” drives much of what we view today as progress. Humans as a race are always pressing forward, always confronted with our own mortality, seeking to make life more palatable not only for ourselves, but for our successors, our children. Once we discover that we are capable of something that we perceive as good, we feel an overwhelming drive to do that thing, hang the consequences.
Part of the tragedy of the character of the mad genius is that s/he works in isolation much of the time, experiencing an absence of feedback from other people about their plans. No one can see all of the failings of their own plans…everyone needs another party to hear their ideas, to proofread their work, as it were.
I think that our decisions, sometimes very important decisions, are becoming rushed. A desire to help others is a noble thing, but not every wonderful idea to better mankind turns out to be such a wonderful idea. In short, innovation must be checked by wisdom, and that wisdom is in short supply when crowd mentalities rush to gather around what is popular, without giving careful thought to what it is that they might be supporting.
I’ve been accused of being a futurist, because I become excited about the potential of what new discoveries and technologies can offer us. I see the problems that they solve, and dream of how much simpler life might be with that problem solved. Then I have to pause, I have to step back and examine whether or not my excitement is equivalent to Pym’s excitement as he dreams of Ultron. Sometimes I continue to see minimal negatives, and sometimes I feel uneasy, a misgiving that gives pause, and is usually justified when I think the issue through carefully. I’m no inventor…I don’t build exciting new things. I’m certainly no entrepreneur…while I dream of new stories and worlds, I don’t formulate new strategies to change the world as we know it. So, granted, I’m not in a position to truly understand many of these things. I am, however, a critical thinker. I believe in examining things through a lens of close observation. I think of what great science fiction writers have written, warning us of the potential outcomes of some of our innovations, and I recall Tillich’s observation that artists are the prophets of our time, warning of dangers before the rest of us can see them.
And I wonder about the dangers, unseen in the excitement over the good.