Do 'BSG's' Cylons hint at our own future?

Artificial intelligences have long fascinated science-fiction writers. The stories are dark and foreboding: supercomputers seizing control of the world, viruses waging war, robots subjugating their human masters, terminators bent on eradicating all human life. “Star Trek’s” Commander Data and Issac Asimov’s law-abiding robots are among the rarities with on-off switches.

The original 1970s “Battlestar Galactica” series reveled in the dark side of artificial intelligence. The humans created the Cylons, a race of intelligent robots that eventually set out to exterminate humanity.

The new “Battlestar Galactica” made the same vision more sinister by introducing Cylons so human in form that only Baltar’s mysterious DNA test can identify them. The human Cylons have all the powers of the mechanicals plus machine-aided resurrection.

Yet just when the Cylons seem to have the upper hand, we discover a flaw: They can’t have children. They also struggle with the same issues we do: What is the meaning of my life? What does God expect of me? What is my relationship to others? It is no longer easy to hate the Cylons. They are too human.

Curiously, a similar convergence is happening in the real world. We are gradually building the capability of replacing our own aging body parts indefinitely and expanding our brains and muscles through implants. Rather than create a race better than ourselves, we are re-creating ourselves. “BSG” is telling us that once we accomplish this, we will struggle with the same questions of the meaning of life that have plagued us since our beginnings.

Peter J. Denning is a renowned computer scientist, writer and distinguished professor at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Computer Science Dept. in Monterey, Calif.

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