Consciousness in Blade Runner

~ Musings on the Blade Runner films

The Nature of Consciousness

The Blade Runner films’ (based on Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) hi-tech ameliorations are mired in the bleak neo-noir landscapes of the near future. On the streets of overcrowded mega-cities, the technological advancements of post-humanism and artificial intelligence allow for a new conflict to be borne between man and his machines. The relatively simplistic but always intriguing ‘detective versus criminal‘ story is rewritten with a new vagary. This setting, and the roles of the replicant and the blade runner, allows for new questions asked about the nature of existence and consciousness.

When the idea of replicants are introduced, humanoids with superior capabilities in a controllable frame, should we hesitate when we sentence them to serving as slave labor? When the violent uprisings begin and the replicants start passing themselves off as humans in order to survive, their progenitors respond by updating the models for enhanced servitude while simultaneously hunting down the seditious older models. How should humanity respond? The blade runners, hired guns tasked with hunting and eliminating rogue replicants, don’t ask questions about the righteousness of their actions. They might ponder, like Deckard, about whether or not what they are doing might have become something like murder. They certainly aren’t supposed to. In general, humans have few reservations about the act of hunting down and killing replicants. It’s not execution, it’s retirement. It isn’t difficult to consider the death of something less sentient than yourself.

Deckard’s story in the original film, as well as K’s in 2049, are explorations of the question of consciousness. We are presented with some existential novelty into what it means to be human and what sentience might entail within a machine. Why should human beings have a monopoly on consciousness, when we barely understand what makes it transpire within us? In both films, it is the replicants that ask the big existential questions, examining the boundaries of their presence in the world. The humans of Earth, on the other hand, often live in the drug-addled squalor of inequitable and forgettable lives. In Deckard’s hunt for Roy Batty, the violent new model trying to find a way out of its limited existence, we witness the reality of the replicant’s personal evolution. In K’s story in 2049, we see what changes are wrought in the most advanced model of replicant when confronted with new possibilities for its own existence. Once these machines cross the threshold of sentience, even gaining reproductive capability borne of something like love, from then on there are sincere moral consequences to all of our future interactions with them.

Paradigm Shift

Does merely being the creator of something afford us the implicit right to destroy it? Despite their intelligence, power and usefulness, in the end they are simply machines, ‘skinjobs.’ It makes it easier that they cannot feel empathy, they aren’t like us – they cannot appreciate art or deal in true emotions. But what if they could? Would knowing this stay our hand and bring us closer to opening a manner of dialogue or negotiation with them? At what threshold do we recognize sentience and begin serious moral consideration? When do we see the transgressions of ‘retirement’? At what point do we appreciate the fact that they might deserve to exist independent of servitude to their creators?

The development of this technology, of artificial intelligence, comes with a great responsibility. The recursive and always advancing nature of the technology, the further elevation of computational power and intelligence from an AI presents unique opportunities and threats for human civilization. Blade Runner envisions a future where mega corporations have fully capitalized on the development of this progression. By using the replicants as a hyper-competent force of autonomous labor, wealth generation comes along efficiently with the added benefit of freeing up human time for other pursuits. The Tyrell and Wallace Corporations across both films, wielding the intellectual property of the replicants at their disposal, represent the most valuable entities in the world. What could be more powerful than the enterprise responsible for creating the world’s best workers?

The potential threat of the replicants turning on humanity, or becoming the next forceful stroke of humanity’s evolution, or even extinction, is met with certain contingencies in the programming. A measure of fail-safes are pre-programmed into the machine Overman, as a manner of preventing a robopocalypse. For some models such as Roy, they are built with a predetermined date of expiration of 4 years. This restrictive lifespan serves to limit the damage a rogue AI might do. The designers of the most advanced replicants in 2049 apply more subtle methods of control. They use memories as anchors to ground the replicants to their confined existence and keep them compliant to operate within their roles (like K). The implanted memories can also make the replicants seem human to themselves, to the point they may not even understand their own nature (such as Rachael). Theoretically, the closer the replicants are to being human, the more effective they can be in roles more suitable to human operators – the types of roles demanding ingenuity, sparks of intelligent insight and original thought. The lengths of this enhanced design detail and the reach towards consciousness generates perilous complications regardless of the fail-safes.

If the creator isn’t equipped to deal with all these consequences, then perhaps the endeavor should never be undertaken at all. In 2049, the discovery of the replicants’ potential capacity for reproduction can be responded to in one of two ways: a denial of its moral significance and a call for its silence (police chief Joshi) or a challenged acceptance for what it means – replicants have achieved sentience, they are a new form of being. They are to be afforded a form of moral respect. Either way, the events of the film represent a paradigm shift for the world. It could mean war between man and machine, like Joshi believes, or simply the next level in humanity’s transformation as responsible curators of the conscious soul.

“I know what’s real.”

^ Deckard’s line to Wallace, in the finale of 2049. Deckard perhaps breaks the fourth wall with his commentary, calling back to the ambiguous ending of the original film and the theories surrounding how real he is. Maybe it doesn’t matter if Deckard is human or himself a replicant. The truth of his child with Rachael is real enough. His nature as a being, as we see through both films, is something so close to human, so familiar to what might be considered true consciousness, that maybe it doesn’t make a difference. Does the specifics of consciousness and the creator / created relationship really matter in the face of the replicants’ clear evolution into something greater?

In the final duel with Roy Batty, Deckard knows he is severely outmatched. All he can do is run, desperately trying to escape certain death at the hands of the wily android. Ironically in the end, the only thing that saves him is the android’s particular penchant for play. He makes a game of it. The replicant knows he’s about to die himself via forced expiration, and wants to feel the thrill of the hunt. More importantly, Roy has an understanding of mercy, and of suffering. In his bout with Deckard, he wants desperately to try to be human. And he seems to know just how much suffering that will imply. Presumably, he wants to be something closer to human because he values life. He is sentient. The audience does not know exactly from where this enlightenment has sourced. Perhaps from Roy’s wild experiences in space, from the many products of human cruelty and prejudice he has witnessed, he was imbued, or externally programmed, with a soul. Ultimately, he values Deckard’s life even though they were just moments before locked in a mortal combat. His actions here constitute true empathy, even if it is delivered from a violent, metal simulacrum merely doing his best to mimic human behavior.

In 2049, we walk alongside K’s progression into consciousness. In the most important ways, we see ‘Joe’ is as much human as the rest of us. Before the revelations, he is living a sham and he is aware of it, if only vaguely cognizant of his own adverse conditions. He goes about his work as a blade runner, unburdened by killing his own “soulless” kind. He then comes home to his austere living quarters where he is given pseudo companionship from Joi, a personally programmed significant other. But he exists in this existential stasis only due to a false history embedded within a productive routine, and under the thumb of his human masters. K’s programming and specific implanted memories are what keeps him from the truth of his own potential, from sentience. However, once he is given the hope of his potential birth from human & replicant parentage, he fully steeps himself in the feelings he was already silencing – about him being special, different than others of his kind. Upon the second revelation that he, in fact, isn’t a “chosen one,” how can his existence ever go back to normal after experiencing such a terrifying dream? I posit that it doesn’t matter if he is the half-human miracle child or not, he is as much a human being as the least of us. He feels the doubts, the loneliness, the sorrow of loss, the pain, and the existential despair that everyone with a soul goes through. And he tries to continue moving forward in spite of this weight. He helps Deckard unite with his daughter. He wants to help advance the collective truth of what the child means before he dies. Doesn’t this persistence represent the essence of what it means to be conscious? Like Deckard, can’t we see what is real here?

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“Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.” ~