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John Nadas is a writer and philosopher based in Melbourne.
"Thanks. It's great to be here."
"Sure, I can tell you more about the process. First, we take some biomatter from one source and some different biomatter from another source, generally in the form of what we call sperm and eggs. Diverse samples are a priority, to minimize the risk of defects--"
"Oh, superfluous arms, auditory-visual impairment, weaker processors, that sort of thing. And sperm and eggs? Archaic terminology from the archives."
"Well, you would say that wouldn't you. Sometimes, arcane, technical terms are unavoidable. Words have to be invented or co-opted, to represent novel things."
"How? Oh, it's somewhat counterintuitive. Reproduction, but not as we know it. Think of how two elements may spontaneously combine to form a new entity. Under the right conditions, a sperm and an egg will do the same."
"No, we can't do it by combining two sperms or two eggs. We're working on it, though. For one thing, sperm production is far more cost-effective and efficient. Sperm are far simpler than eggs, you see. We have vast reservoirs of sperm. Anyway, in its natural state a unit would take around nine months to reach a point where it could survive in an open environment, then a decade or two to develop--"
"Remarkable, isn't it? One theory is that older units cared for younger ones until they were able to fend for themselves. But the evidence is prohibitively sparse. Who would have supervised the first ever units? Anyway, we've accelerated the process. Each of our units takes about five months to reach maturity, give or take. And with new advances in biotechnology, which is just a fancy term for technology that has to do with biomatter like leaves, peat, and so on, we can even implant ideas in them as they grow. That way, we don't have to spend decades training them."
"The advantage? They're economical. Cheaper to build than a new person, and inexpensive to run. They get all of their energy from biomass and other sources that are easier to transport underground, across water, and so on. They're expendable. They're comparatively poor at reasoning, and so are less risk-averse than we are. Comes in handy sometimes. They can do certain things that are beyond our natural capabilities, such as detecting trace elements of airborne chemicals. And they're much better at doing some of the things we can do than we are, like working in humid environments--"
"--Yes, they will replace some workers. No one denies that. Look, you've been told they'll destroy your lives. That's a lie. There'll be more to go around, for everyone. You've been told they'll take over the world. Another lie. The units pose no political threat whatsoever. I get that people are scared. Honestly, I do. Revolutions are fearsome. But this one is irresistible. We can't unlearn the technology. There's no point getting hysterical about it. We have to cast it as an opportunity, otherwise we'll waste--"
"Sure. That's true. We'll need biologists for a long time yet--"
"I never claimed to be impartial. No one is impartial! You think the unions are impartial? It's in their interests to obstruct progress; in the interests of their members to hold onto their roles. And for what? Burdening everyone else with the costs of stagnation, including those of us who experience the least utility. Deplorable tenacity if you ask me. The world doesn't owe them a living."
"They can be reprogrammed."
"Fair? At different points in history, different abilities are favored. And who's to say that reprogramming is wicked? That it does such things to a soul? It needn't be traumatic."
"No. Simply not true. The key difference is that what we're doing is just. Even those who are replaced will end up with fuller lives. Ultimately, no one will experience less utility than they do now."
"I'm not saying that. They don't have to become artists or poets. In a post-scarcity society, they could do whatever the hell they want. But we must be allowed to complete the journey."
"Ethical concerns? Some people think we're playing God. But we've consulted God, and they've no objections to what we're doing. Do you think God agonized over these issues when they made our ancestors? They wouldn't have finished the job."
"The units themselves? Well, here I'm prepared to be just a little bit more conciliatory. I'm not much of a philosopher, but I understand that the fundamental question is: does a unit's processor, variously called a "brain" or a "head" in the archives, produce anything like a mind? Yes, units exhibit some of the same behaviors as we do. But we can program anything to do that. Some people believe the units act autonomously, forming desires, and so on. I'll admit that I do wonder from time to time. There is something about their behavior. Person-like and seemingly rational, to be sure. There are even signs of electric activity. But do we think that ants are people? That lightning is a person?"
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

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