Voyager I

by Sway Benns

If I Had Known It Was Harmless I Would Have Killed It Myself

General Decay, A Satellite, the p53 Protein, Creation.

My desire to have children is often so overwhelming that I’m concerned it’s disabling the effects of my birth control.

This is called a biological imperative.

I worry about pregnancy in the shower: peering down at a concave stomach, attempting to de-rationalize the fact that my last sexual encounter was nearly six months ago, ignoring the fact that he pulled out approximately five seconds before ejaculating—long enough to perform a few mechanical pumps of the hand—muscle memory, inutile fanfare.

This is obsessive thinking.

There’s a TED Talk called “The Real Reason for Brains.” In it Neuroscientist and Engineer Daniel Wolpert discusses how the brain controls the body, suggesting humans are “Bayesian inference machines.” I didn’t know what this meant, so I looked it up: The bookReasoning Processes in Humans and Computers: Theory and Research in Psychology and Artificial Intelligence by Morton Wagman (2003), references research by John Staddon, who describes the formally known Bayesian inference machine as “the learning mechanisms responsible for habituation, sensitization, classical conditioning and operant condition.”

The suicide gene in multi-cellular organisms causes cells to die off through apoptosis, or a programmed cell death. In a natural environment, this bodes well for humans hoping to be born without webbed fingers. The p53 protein can also be artificially stimulated to activate this gene, causing unwanted cells to implode, of note to those interested in the eradication of cancer—which is maybe all of us when one considers the trajectory of the industrialized nation and its steadily increasing hand-in-hand relationship with malignant tumors.

There’s a suicide gene in humans. It’s found by noting methylation increases at SKA2, which seems to correlate with suicidal thoughts or attempts in individuals. It’s difficult to discern the practical application of this particular gene—though one could assume there’s a little understood weighing of scales: These biological imperatives finding themselves overruled by some species’ survival mechanism. In the same way some of us find ourselves ushered out by disease or general decay (and cells find themselves degenerating), others are simply asked to leave the planet (protein p53).

I curb my own occasional suicidal behavior with one of two mechanical fail-safes: a trip to the emergency room when I don’t think it will end in my undoing a seatbelt and driving into a tree. When the tree seems likely, I find myself participating in an activity dictated by lower-level brain functions: cleaning my apartment until the relentless scrape of bristles against tile and wood lulls me into a meditative state—then I go for a run.

The Voyager launched from the Kennedy Space Center on August 20th, 1977. On August 25th, 2012 it entered interstellar space. During the first week of September 2014, astronaut Chris Hadfield fielded a phone call from the 5-year-old son of Lilia Yumagulova, who expressed concern over the well-being of the machine that was, as of November 10th, 2014 6:46 p.m. PST, 19,491,325,629 kilometers (or 1.21113e10 miles) apart from its home. Hadfield posed the question, “Is Voyager a happy machine or a sad machine?” And is it? The astronaut proposed yes: “Machines really like to do something, they like to do what they’re built for. A tractor is happy when it’s pulling a plow, and working a field.”

Daniel Wolpert’s proposition was meant to suggest that the brain was created  “for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements.” He sites sea squirts as evidence of this: The animal will, upon finding a suitable rock to spend the rest of its life, consume its own brain. If this is true for humans, one wonders: What about anxiety, joy, anger, love? Are they byproducts of an inelegant evolution, finding ways to communicate stop and go?

Evolution adapted our fixed, familiar autogenic gestures to suit our environment (hence apoptosis’ role in our in utero de-webbing). A robot that cycles would no doubt move more quickly on a flat surface—but what happens when that machine approaches a rock scramble (as DARPA’s YouTube channel is quick to smugly point out)? Now we have architecture, city planning, co-opt boards—we’ve begun to adapt our environment to suit our own agendas—our planet grudgingly handing off its resources: we lounge in an Eames chair, we incline our treadmills, and that same robot clumsily navigates a set of stairs.

Let’s assume, perhaps with a small leap of species allegiance, that Wolpert’s and Hadfield’s theories are both correct, that, respectively, we were meant for movement and that doing so will make our machines happy. Raptured states are often entered through kinesthetic means: Asafa Powell was said by The Guardian to be swinging “from side to side as if in a trance,” before the 100 meter final at the 2008 Olympics (it’s maybe worth noting that he lost); Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy bring us closer to nirvana with a repetitive flickering of the eyes, a rhythmic tapping of the wrist; we pace when angry; our babies, those products of our biological imperatives, are kinder when we dance with them (see study of interpersonal synchrony’s increase on prosocial behavior in Developmental Science, November 2014). Science fiction routinely offers a dystopian future in which our machines are simply better than us: agile, lithe, racked with human rage and anxiety (perhaps for them also a byproduct of our imbued mobility). Yet despite our years of study and our adept navigation of our own vehicles—our non-fiction reproductions often fail: they awkwardly navigate our lab obstacles, they slip headlong into the uncanny valley.

I think about how, following the logic of Wolpert and Hadfield, the logical conclusion for all of this seems to be fairly mundane: We are imperfect creators because creation is not what we were meant to do—then I go for a run.

Paolo Mascagni. “Anatomia Universa,” (1775 – 1813). Colored engraving. Dimensions unknown. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London.