I accidentally knocked it against the edge of the kitchen sink and its handle broke. Instinctively, I gathered the pieces to throw them into the bin. And then I stopped. I wanted to take in, respectfully, the feeling of loss that surged over me. This mug had been given by my late brother-in-law, Blake. Throwing it away, which in the end I will of course, will have incalculably more meaning than most other acts of disposal. It will mean the loss of one more material connection to someone I once knew, but who has since departed.
Blake was proud of his hometown, Austin, Texas. He was very much of it, a sort of IT nerd in one of America’s IT capitals. He was my primary source of information about technology trends, eagerly sketching what was coming over the horizon. Some days he spoke in sentences so full of techspeak, keeping up with him often involved pretending that I understood.
I can’t remember when he brought me the mug — it must have been well over ten years ago on one of his annual visits to Singapore. There was even one occasion when we met in Hong Kong; both of us were on business trips and our paths crossed. We had dinner together in Causeway Bay. But he wasn’t lucky. In the last quarter of 2015, he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and by March 2016, he was gone. He was not even 50 years old.
My widowed sister firmly believes he’s gone to heaven. I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s any heaven, or hell for that matter, to go to. I think there’s only nothingness, nothingness so absolute that it can only mean infinite peace.
Over the years, there has been a growing list of people I once knew who have made the move. Some of them, like Blake, younger than me. As time passes since their deaths, there is an attrition of connection. Photographs fade, material objects are lost or broken, and memory leached of detail. The process however is not a smooth passage. As in a breaking of a mug, there are spiky moments of recall and regret, when you have to grieve once more, and let go all over again.
Decades ago, our family had a cat. I was never close to her, but she was a familiar fixture of home. Eventually of course, she fell ill and died. It affected me for a week or so but rationalising in the full awareness that it had to happen — cats don’t live anything like as long as humans — my daily routine resumed soon enough and other concerns took centre stage.
Then about a month later, I happened to be in a supermarket looking for something — I can’t remember now what I was intending to buy — when I just happened to walk past shelves of cat food. It had been my routine to always pick up some cans for her, but today, I have no need to. It hits me in the gut. Tears well up and I am a wreck in the public aisle of a supermarket. I lean against a pillar trying to hold myself together but still I fail, half sliding down to the floor. I am uncontrollable, and yet acutely conscious — as most young men would be — that I am embarrassing myself.
How long was I there? I don’t know. Probably not that long, but long enough to say a great big goodbye to Mitzi.
* * * * *
Earlier this week, “Will machines ever feel emotion?” a colleague asked as we walked to the elevators from the conference room. No, the conference was not about such things, but perhaps she was continuing a conversation we had the evening before at dinner when I mentioned an earlier article I have on Yawning Bread (There was once a buffalo here).
Unhesitatingly, I answered, “Of course, they will.”
It seemed to surprise her, though I am not sure whether it was because I gave a positive answer or because I seemed so certain. To be frank, it surprised me a little too. Was it my voice speaking or Blake’s?
Turning back to her, I immediately felt I should expand on my answer: “A human has only one brain, and the neural connections in it give rise not only to rational thinking, but also to consciousness and emotions. When artificial neural connections — artificial intelligence — attain a similar level of complexity, why shouldn’t they similarly give rise to consciousness and emotions?
“We don’t have two brains,” I continued, “one for rational thinking, and the other for emotions. One brain does both kinds of work; I don’t think you can separate the two. Ditto for AI.”
So maybe there will come a day when the machines around us grow attached to us. Then, when our own mortal switch finally goes off, they will miss the quotidian familiarity of interaction. Or when months later, they encounter objects, sounds or patterns associated with our presence, but now cut off from their significance since we’re gone, maybe these machines will break down, lean against a pillar, and weep.