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Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2001 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Julia Gorin

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Artificial humanity -- MY doctor recently remarked that she was constantly amazed by the endless similarities between the workings of the central nervous system and those of a computer, each system with its interdependent network of subsystems. If G-d made man in his image, she concluded, surely man made the computer in his.

This got us talking about the past summer's sci-fi epic "A.I.," which takes this theory to the literal extreme. In the movie, the boy robot is the cutting edge of technology because he is as close as ever a computer has come to being human. Yet the film itself is the cutting edge of irrelevance. For in contemporary society, it is not machines that are becoming more like us, but we who are becoming more like machines.

It may have started earlier, but sperm banks and surrogate motherhood definitely signaled a new dawn, followed by egg donation and fertility drugs. Meanwhile, so that no one would have to raise a mentally or physically defective child, prenatal genetic research started raising red flags so that expecting parents could opt to terminate the pregnancy. And now that we've moved into cloning, fertilizing eggs without sperm, and breeding embryos for research, the first baby grown entirely in a "test tube" is not far away.

Add couples willing to spend up to six figures on a college co-ed who, advertised in a bikini on the cover of an industry brochure, meets a few rigorous specs for donorship (tall, blonde, academically and athletically gifted)-and it's not difficult to envision a world in which couples simply call the baby farm and place their order: sex, race, ethnicity, complexion, height, hair, eyes, intelligence, personality and musical predisposition. Spawned in a tube or a pod, the real Cabbage Patch Kids are coming.

It's called scientific advancement-and that it is. But as we've seen, every one of these achievements brings with it moral dilemma, and moral dilemma carries moral responsibility.

Yet couples benefiting from fertility drugs are routinely given the choice-and in some cases encouraged-to abort any extra fetuses resulting from over-fertilization, even though harvesting more than what one intended is a foreknown hazard of the procedure. Shouldn't the potential parents be prepared to accept responsibility for such an outcome at the outset of the procedure, if only as a tradeoff for being made fruitful? Casually plucking one or a few out is a degradation of humanity.

Many won't burden themselves with the ethical questions arising from the increasingly common procedures of the new dawn -- as indeed many already don't -- whether it's an extra fetus harvested through drugs, artificial insemination or the industrial egg farm--or discovery via genetic engineering that a child will be autistic or missing a limb. Some have already gone a step further, with at least three well-publicized cases of couples spawning countless test tube "zygotes" in the hopes of creating an ideal organ or marrow donor for an ailing firstborn. When confronted with criticism, the couples reply-almost as a chorus-"You can't understand unless you've been through what we have."

The day is near when we will be like programmers, constantly debugging or scrapping and rewriting when the software isn't working the way we want. Disposability will simply be considered as coming with the territory, and whatever the decision, it will be filed away with all the other human complexities in the moral ambiguities folder.

It is at this point, when we dismiss the ethical questions, that we surrender our humanity and draw nearer to a machine-like existence. Computers do not feel responsibility; they do what they're set to do. In not wanting to be encumbered by the difficulties which accompany the choices we make; in not wanting to think, but to just do, we are evading that which makes us distinctly human.

From the earliest science fiction, machine and alien alike have envied man his humanness, and have tried to learn and understand as much as possible about him-what he thinks, what he feels, how he reacts, what he lives for. In "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the pursuit of human sensation was the life obsession of the android "Data" until finally he was implanted with a chip giving him the ability to feel. The first time he felt pain, he yelped, announcing that he'd hurt himself. Are you ok? asked the concerned crew. Yes--I loved it! was his reply.

We, on the other hand, are always seeking to make life as painless as possible, escaping consequence as often as truth, avoiding morality and inconvenience, and evading responsibility at every turn. We don't want the human baggage, don't want to be plagued by conscience, don't want to constantly have to think about what is right and what is wrong. Genetic engineering wouldn't be nearly the scary proposition that its critics appropriately fear if a pervasive avoidance of responsibility didn't already characterize today's society.

In "A.I.," the computer boy loves and spends his life pursuing love. Interestingly, the machine boy is a warmer and more sensitive creature than his detached human parents. Although this inversion may have been unintentional, it is prophetic. Because as we allow a cavalier attitude to overtake us, we move closer to that terribly unlikable couple.

There must not be a separating from the moral questions. For morality is the last bastion of humanity; there mustn't be mortals without morals. If we start going through the motions mechanically, the machines will have won without so much as a battle. We will turn into those cold, futuristic, purely neurological beings whom we've set up as our eternal nemeses, searching for the key to humanity.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2001, Julia Gorin