Four billion years ago, Earth was a lifeless place. Nothing struggled, thought, or wanted. Seawater leached chemicals from rocks; near thermal vents, those chemicals jostled and combined. Some hit upon the trick of making copies of themselves that, in turn, made more copies. The replicating chains were caught in oily bubbles, which protected them and made replication easier; eventually, they began to venture out into the open sea. A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. The tree of life grew, its branches stretching toward complexity. Organisms developed systems, subsystems, and sub-subsystems, layered in ever-deepening regression. They used these systems to anticipate their future and to change it. When they looked within, some found that they had selves--constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes that emerged from the systems inside. They experienced being alive and had thoughts about that experience. They developed language and used it to know themselves; they began to ask how they had been made. This, to a first approximation, is the secular story of our creation. It has no single author; it's been written collaboratively by scientists over the past few centuries. If, however, it could be said to belong to any single person, that person might be Daniel Dennett, a seventy-four-year-old philosopher who teaches at Tufts. In the course of forty years, and more than a dozen books, Dennett has endeavored to explain how a soulless world could have given rise to a soulful one. His special focus is the creation of the human mind.
My day job, in lieu of teaching creative writing like a normal person, is writing scripts for blockbuster video games. Last summer, while I watched a play-through of the then-unreleased Gears of War 4, for which I was the lead writer, something odd happened. The game's story called for a massive plane crash, out of which a single robot, operatically aflame, was intended to stride toward the player. Within the game's fiction, robots have hitherto opposed the player, but we wanted this particular burning robot to pose no immediate threat. The game programmers had thus switched off the hostility driven by the robot's artificial intelligence, allowing the player to walk past the hapless robot or shoot it.
The first time I met Alexa, the A.I. robot voice inside the wine-bottle-size speaker known as the Amazon Echo, I was at my friends' house, in rural New England. "Currently, it is seventy-five degrees," she told us, and assured us that it would not rain. This was a year ago, and I'd never encountered a talking speaker before. She's in cahoots with a sensor in their driveway.) When I razzed my friend for his love of gadgetry, he showed me some of Alexa's other tricks: telling us the weather, keeping a shopping list, ordering products from Amazon.