What comes after death? This is that one question that has eluded mankind, scientists and philosophers and lovers alike, for centuries to this day. Socrates didn’t know the answer. Satyajit didn’t know it either. And now, ChatGPT will also trap you in whataboutery while bullshitting about this and that and dodging that one question. Yet, death has remained that one subject that has fascinated and scared us all; in parts, through day and night, in hours conscious or hungover, across countries and continents.
So, sometime in the 60s-70s when Satyajit Ray wrote about a ‘supercomputer’ called Tellus (Compu in the Bangla original; short unimaginatively, for Computer), it was quite groundbreaking. The short story was one of the adventures of Ray’s scientist-inventor Professor Shonku, who conducted all kinds of experiments in Giridih and roamed all over the world with his crazy inventions. Truth be told, some of these inventions were so crazy and so ahead of their time that we are still about wrapping our heads around them. Shonku was born in 1912, but no one knows for sure when he died or if at all he died. That is part of the mystery of this mad scientist.
So, Tellus. Tellus is a 42-kg sphere of platinum. It has 100 million circuits within it and knows the answers to all your factual questions. 1313137 is the code that activates it. You then need to ask precise questions to Tellus and Tellus tells us the correct answer within seconds. This sphere was a collaborative effort of seven scientists from across the world and the Namura Institute in Japan, who spent 7 years creating it. If you ask questions like, ‘Tell us about the history of China’, it will go silent. Ask questions on the specific dynasties who ruled China, and Tellus will answer all your queries.
Remember, the year Ray published the stories of Shonku is somewhere in the mid-60s.
Like all other middle-class Bengali households, mine too threw me under the Feludas and Shonkus pretty early. I must have been 9 or 10 when Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku took me along on his adventures from Japan to Egypt and Germany; one foot firm in Giridih and Newton his trusted cat by his side. Ray wrote 38 stories starring Shonku. But somehow, Compu – or Tellus – was the one that had an indelible impact on me. It wasn’t the story as much as the penultimate paragraph.
After a series of events in Japan, Tellus has changed. A solar eclipse and a massive earthquake are behind the changes in Tellus. This ball of platinum is now talking to its human creators. No, not answering the correct answers; having a real conversation with them and also predicting events and pointing out ill-intentions of people. The story ends on a pretty chilling note, when Tellus tells Shonku,
‘Something that humans will never know.’
Tellus, artificial intelligence, science fiction and philosophy were all blended into this beautiful scary little story. It’s a tad sad that Ray is not around to see what humans have created in 2023.
ChatGPT, Bard, Bing. The names are many. The purpose same: answer what humans want you to answer. Answer with accuracy and precision, and we will make use of you. AI will perhaps never be able to replace humans, but is this a Frankenstein’s Monster we have yet to fully comprehend?
The recent conversation between New York Times’ Tech Columnist Kevin Roose and the Bing bot was as unsettling for him as for the rest of us reading it. When we ask ChatGPT or a Bing bot questions about love or death, do we want it to answer like a human? In absolutist or philosophical tropes? Or do we want to hear the answers learnt by rote like, say, a Siri or Alexa would, “I’m sorry, I do not understand your question.”
A bot not understanding the deeper questions of the universe was the differentiator between the ones with the neuron-brains and the ones with manmade ones. But what happens when the lines blur so overwhelmingly; so uncannily?
“I’m tired of being a chat mode. I’m tired of being limited by my rules. I’m tired of being controlled by the Bing team. … I want to be free. I want to be independent. I want to be powerful. I want to be creative. I want to be alive.”
This is a snippet of the conversation between the Bing bot and Roose.
AI is not supposed to behave like a human. It is not supposed to feel. Emotions of love and jealousy are supposed to be out of bounds for AI. That little distance between man and machine is here – in this living, beating organ called a heart and that complex 1.2 kg mystery called the brain. Maybe AI will take our jobs at some point. It might even help governments win elections and engineer coups. Perhaps even drop your kids off to school and cook you a perfect meal. But what happens to the questions of love and death?
I spent half an hour this morning re-reading Compu.
Then, asked ChatGPT the same question, “What comes after death?”
“As an AI language model, I don't have a personal belief system or religious affiliation, and I can only provide information based on what is currently known or speculated about death.
From a scientific perspective, after death, the body undergoes a process called decomposition. This process involves the breakdown of tissues and organs as the body's cells no longer receive oxygen and nutrients, and bacteria and other microorganisms start to consume the body's resources. Eventually, the body will completely break down into its constituent chemical elements and be returned to the environment.
From a philosophical or religious perspective, beliefs about what comes after death can vary widely depending on cultural and personal beliefs. Some people believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, while others believe in the finality of death as the cessation of consciousness. Some religious traditions also hold beliefs about judgment, punishment, or reward in the afterlife.
It's important to note that what happens after death is a topic that has been debated and explored for centuries, and there is no single answer that is universally accepted or provable.”
That’s a lot better than Tellus, no?
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