From February 25 to 26, 2023, the Berggruen Research Center, Peking University hosted a workshop on the theme of “The Future of Private Life from the Perspective of Science Fiction.” Sci-fi writers, philosophers, and scientists were invited to discuss three individual and interconnected topics: Future Family and Intimacy, Brain, Mind, and Scientific Ethics, and Civilizational Evolution in the Era of Technology.
1. The Future of Family and Intimacy
Professor Sun Xiangchen from Fudan University offered his insights into the question of whether the human family will remain possible under the future impact of technology. He noted that science fiction and philosophy share some similarities—both focus on the underlying logic and fundamental issues related to human life, but science fiction can exert a delicate emotional impact on human beings that philosophical notions cannot. “Family” and “love” should be understood separately in the context of Chinese and Western civilizations. The technology advocated by modern civilization has established a “logic of technology” that runs parallel to ancient Greece’s “logic of life.” Science fiction forecasts and predicts the future fate of mankind amid the conflict between ancient and modern civilizations and the balanced coexistence of the two logical frameworks. As for the depictions of human cloning and artificial wombs in sci-fi works, the understanding of heaven and earth, the spatial structure of “self-cultivation, a well-managed family, and the ability to administer the state and bring peace to the nation”, and the temporal structure of parent-child relationships in Chinese philosophy together form a “Chinese-style cross” with family as the intersection. This can address the crisis of human civilization resulting from technology, individualism, and modernity alongside the philosophy of “seeking ultimate perfection.”
Professor Wu Fei from Peking University believes that the vitality of Chinese science fiction lies in its response to practical concerns and takes root in basic ethical issues. Does the human family have deep roots or will the family eventually disappear? He noted that Chinese and Western philosophies show contrasting theories towards family, but the basic Chinese and Western ways of living have much in common. The second question is whether the family is naturally formed or constructed by society. In Chinese philosophy, the imagination of parent-child relationships challenges the traditional notion of linear time and space. According to the traditional time-space notion, every individual has his exclusive, unbroken timeline of life. However, parents and their children share intersecting timelines based on the parent-child relationship, which is further expanded to social networks to create time-space convergences between persons. The time-space rhythm, which is in nature the rhythm of life, cannot be broken and reshaped by science and technology.
Baoshu, a sci-fi writer and a 2022-2023 Berggruen China Center fellow, discussed parent-child relationships and the future of humanity from the perspective of science fiction. Parent-child relationships are crucial to human evolution. At present, parent-child relationships are facing a severe crisis due to problems caused by the modern transformation of human society, such as declining fertility rates, surrogacy, and gene editing. Many sci-fi works focusing on the changes in childbirth and assisted reproductive technology have emerged. In modern parent-child relationships, the conflict between parents and children as “others” has faced unprecedented escalation. Similarly, the impact of longevity technology on transgenerational awareness and human ethics, the “souvenirisation” of consciousness of the deceased, and their influence on parent-child relationships have been hot science fiction themes in recent years.
Sci-fit writer Hui Hu reviewed depictions of the impact of virtual reality (VR), mind uploading, and the impact of digital personalities on marital life in sci-fi works such as Black Mirror, The Terminal Experiment, Pantheon, and Upload, discussing whether the future world should be built at the expense of privacy. He called on sci-fi writers to pay attention to the conflict of values and the potential risks of science and technology. Sci-fi writer A Que shared his views on how to express intimacy in the future. He predicted that with the maturity of technologies such as brain-computer interface and brain data reading and storage, mating behaviors, parent-child relationships, and the process of learning may encounter enormous changes. He also discussed the gradual cooling-down of the metaverse and the possibility of technologies such as VR enabling those who lack intimate relationships, in reality, to experience them virtually.
Professor Wu Yan from the Southern University of Science and Technology provided a definition of “metasex”. Just as “metacognition” is defined as thinking about one’s thinking, “metasex” can be interpreted as sex upon sex. Actualizing “metasex” would require methods including facilitating biochemical changes through the use of drugs and physical stimuli by digital means. On the one hand, metasex may lead to substantial improvement in the level of human well-being. On the other hand, it also carries the potential threat of individual psychological disturbances and even death. Metasex may bring about a decrease in human exploration and pursuit of unknown desires, but it could also facilitate the emergence of entirely new life goals.
2. Brain, Mind, and Scientific Ethics
Professor Liu Chao from Beijing Normal University briefed the audience on some sci-fi works related to the human brain, such as The Matrix and Flowers for Algernon. Then, he introduced the latest breakthroughs in human brain research and discussed the distance between science fiction and reality. For instance, in reality, human brain research has to slow down due to ethical restrictions on the objects of research.
Professor Chen Haidan from the School of Health Humanities, Peking University, talked about emerging studies on scientific ethics and brain-computer interface. Taking A Que’s sci-fi novel 2039: Brain-Computer Age as an example, she discussed ethical issues related to brain-computer interface research, such as safety, informed consent, autonomy, and unity of personality in medical applications. There are also ethical controversies in non-medical scenarios, including neuro privacy, neutral monitoring and control, neutral hype, and human enhancement. How to evaluate relevant safety and potential harm is also a question.
Professor Wang Qiu from Fudan University discussed the rise of digital personality and the disappearance of ordinary self-consciousness. Based on O’Brien and G.E.M. Anscombe’s ordinary self-consciousness theory, connected to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “gaze” theory, he brought up the normal self-consciousness of those who feel insecure when socializing with others and discussed the difference between digital personality and natural personality. For example, digital personalities might miss some variables or become invalid. Therefore, even if a digital personality could behave self-consciously, it would be impossible to feel self-conscious. If we assign more and more socializing work to digital personalities, our ordinary self-consciousness will change drastically and even disappear.
Professor Wang Jue from Xi’an Jiaotong University raised the question: should we humans empathize with social robots? She analyzed three types of empathy: rudimentary empathy put forward by David Hume, projective empathy put forward by Adam Smith, and proto-sympathetic empathy. She believes that the ethical paradigm of the future human-machine community depends on how to answer the following questions: (1) how should we understand the nature and scope of human-machine empathy? (2) how should we understand the impact of possible empathy between humans and machines on mankind?
3. Civilizational Evolution in the Technology Era
Wang Yao, a sci-fi writer under the pen name Xia Jia and a professor at the Chinese Literature Department of Xi’an Jiaotong University, talked about her own works Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy, and Chinese Encyclopedia. She reviewed the history of utopian and dystopian sentiments in writing, with Thomas More’s Utopia and Herbert George Wells’ The First Men in the Moon as examples. Then, she discussed the modernity in the division of public and private sectors and sci-fi’s tendency to depict the private sector as ignorant. She holds that the aggressive imagination of science fiction may provide solutions to problems plaguing modern society, such as elder care, childbearing, parent-child relationships, and even human trafficking that may involve involuntary childbirth. At last, when we think about whether there are new technologies and solutions bridging the material and spiritual divide, we probably need to first figure out the relationship between the human body and happiness as well as the relationship between private and non-private sectors in the future era of digital information.
Professor Jia Liyuan from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Tsinghua University also mentioned the definition of “private life.” As the public-private interface shifts from one-way to two-way in the internet era, will AI and cloud technology make private life a kind of public life against the backdrop of population aging and declining birth rates? Will AI and individuals form new units of life and intelligent communities?
Sci-fi writer Jiang Bo discussed the potential relationship between individualism and the decay of civilization in modern society. He put forward the question: as individualism calls for emancipating personality and putting individuals first, is this the cause or at least relative to the dropping birth rate in modern civilization? The imagined future world is individualism-centered, and the peripheral world often takes family as its core unit. Such a consumptive, unsustainable decaying process of a prosperous society will be unnecessary to result in the death of civilization, but long-term dynamic changes of the center of power and populations may exert a permanent negative impact on human civilization.
Stanley Chan, also a sci-fi writer, imagined human life in an era when ChatGPT and AI-generated content (AIGC) are ubiquitous. At first, he retraced the timeline of AI development in science fiction and the real world and introduced some interesting outcomes in the human-machine coordinated writing of science fiction. He then expounded on Open AI’s GPT-3 model as well as the possible changes in human life in an AIGC era. Perhaps mankind will unconsciously cross over the singular point, and realize in hindsight that human beings are just in a transitional phase of planetary intelligence evolution.