Guest Blog by Andrew Dana Hudson
It’s very clear—from science, from anecdotes, from viral videos on the Internet—that humans share this planet with alien intelligences. I don’t speak of skrulls or reptoids, of course, but of dogs, dolphins, apes, whales, corvids, cats and elephants. And countless others, animals with their own subjective inner lives, with opinions, desires, emotions and even language.
And yet, where is the highly funded, intergovernmental, Arrival-esque research effort to establish meaningful communication with these terrestrial alien minds? Plenty of science is done on animal communication, but nothing on the scale of what’s depicted in blockbuster movies and sci-fi novels as a natural response to encountering beings from outer space. We giddy at the thought of universal translators—they’re in everything from Star Trek to Marvel movies to Barbarella—but we seem disinterested in applying such a device to the non-humans already on our planet.
I don’t want to dwell on why this is—our speciesism, our anthropocentrism, the artificial hierarchies we create to set ourselves apart from other kinds of minds—but rather propose a sci-fi “what-if.” What if our priorities were different? What if, instead of using Big Data to optimize social media ads, we used that enormous computational power to interpret the sounds, signs, and body language of animals? What if, instead of automating weapons of war, DARPA and similar used artificial intelligence to create tools of connection? What if our schools taught us how to listen—with our ears, eyes, nose and touch—to beings who don’t look like us but nonetheless likely have something interesting to say?
Some of this hypothetical backgrounds my story “The Mammoth Steps.” In it, translation technology and norms of interspecies communication make possible a deep friendship between a boy, Kaskil, and a de-extincted mammoth, Roomba. More than that, they create a world in which Roomba is not a pet, not confined or controlled or enslaved, but rather has the agency to pursue his own dreams and desires. He, with Kaskil’s help, journeys across the human world, and he is mostly left alone, allowed to live his own life, go his own way. It is merely science fictional flare to tell this story with a mammoth, rather than a chimp or a beluga or an African elephant.
In our “what-if” scenario, it is not hard to imagine that interspecies communication tech doesn’t just empower humans, but empowers non-humans as well. Imagine visiting a city where everyone speaks a foreign language. You see things that interest you—museums and shops and public transit and restaurants—but you can’t express that interest to the locals, can’t even get them to let you in the buildings. But with our translator, all that is changed! Is it so hard to imagine that with real communication, rather than reward-and-punishment training under regimes of animal captivity and slavery, some non-humans could similarly become flourishing parts of our civilization, perhaps our cities? Could even, with the right technological assistance, do jobs, get paid, rent apartments, participate in the economy, enjoy leisure, express opinions, create art?
We don’t know what’s really possible here. We lack the civilizational priorities to find out. We don’t know how much of any consciousness is instinctive and how much is learned, relational, materially constructed. We can train elephants to paint, and chuckle at their little drawings, feel impressed that an animal could do this, while also feeling safe in knowing that it will never compare to great human art. But we have never let an elephant go to art school, never created the material and social conditions for elephant art to unfold over generations.
In my “Mammoth Steps” what-if of translation apps, visual talking boards, and touchscreen interface balls, humans and animals have started to explore what might be possible. Working together to care for the environment? Yes. Non-human freedom of movement across a whole continent? Within reason. Clothes and healthcare to bring comfort to those with different bodies? Worth trying. Shared politics, economics, communities? Contentious, but we’ll never know until we try.
Andrew Dana Hudson’s fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Vice Terraform, Slate Future Tense, Grist, MIT Technology Review, and more. His work won the 2016 Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest and was runner-up in the 2017 Kaleidoscope Writing the Future Contest. He has a master’s degree in sustainability from Arizona State University and is a fellow at the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination. He is a member of the cursed 2020/2021 class of the Clarion Workshop. He lives in Tempe, Arizona and can be found online at www.andrewdanahudson.com and on Twitter at @andrewdhudson.
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