What is Humanity? – The Duality of NieR: Automata’s War
I really enjoy stories about androids. They may be done to death, that I’ll give you, but I’ll just never get enough of seeing how an AI could gain sentience. I just won’t. It’s the little wannabe philosopher in me that enjoys these stories about humanity so much.
Really, I think it’s one of the most interesting topics to ever discuss, and one that’s very relevant for our daily lives. When will AI grow a conscience? Will it ever be considered sentient if it did? At that point, would we just be enslaving them, or no matter what they say or do, will they ever be considered “real” at all?
I absolutely love that topic, and I could literally sit down and blab about it for an entire day if I really wanted. There are many, many stories that discuss something along the lines of an AI growing sentience, no matter the medium.
Plastic Memories is an anime that’s probably one of the better-known ones when we talk about this topic. Chobits is another popular one. Lots of games have explored this, Detroit Become Human, Doki Doki Literature Club, both of those very different games that explored a similar concept blew up in their respective release years. It’s almost like other people really find this topic interesting.
You could discuss so many things about the concept an AI, and what’s so cool about it is I guarantee you many different people will have different opinions. Say, AI gets to the point where it is damn near indistinguishable from humans, right? You’ll still have people who will say they don’t deserve to be treated as such because they aren’t real. We created them. They’re fake. Their “existence” is meaningless.
Which, as brutal as that sounds, is a fair statement. No matter how intelligent they get, there is an absolute difference from humans. It’s fair to think that. But what it ultimately comes down to is what you think it means to be human in the first place. If they aren’t real because we created them, well, every human is also created by humans, just in a different way.
When you get right down to it, what’s the difference between a newborn baby and a fresh AI? They were both created. They’re both essentially blank slates. They both don’t know how to function on their own. They both need to be taught how to do things. There are quite a few similarities. The biggest difference is that AI has yet to question itself. It hasn’t wondered why it’s given orders. It doesn’t think about its existence. It hasn’t had an existential crisis yet, pretty much.
And this is where I finally get to the story in question, NieR: Automata. This game is one of the more extreme examples of this concept I’ve ever seen. Not necessarily because it’s more grande, but because it doubles up on the idea as a whole.
The common theme in a lot of these stories is that they generally center around some conflict between humans and androids. Whether that conflict is a war of some kind or just moral differences, it’s a struggle between humans accepting this new humanity.
That’s where Automata breaks away from the mold. This story is similar but flips things onto its head in a lot of ways. Automata is about a war between what is likely sentient and what seems sentient. It’s the same as many similar stories. What’s different is that humans really aren’t anywhere to be found.
In the far distant future, humans fled the Earth to the Moon. They did this to get away from machine lifeforms that aliens sent down to destroy them. Somewhere along the way, humans established YoRHa, a military force of androids they send down to Earth in mechs to reclaim their home. You still with me?
You take the role of some of those androids throughout the game, and the entirety of the story is dealing with the machine lifeforms that are just robots, basically. They look like robots, talk like robots. They’re far more machine-like than their android counterparts, which were built to a more human likeness.
This creates a really fascinating scenario where it’s really AI vs. AI. There is nobody involved in the war that’s “real” other than the humans that send out a message every now and then to tell the androids to reclaim Earth.
It isn’t a battle between machine and human. It’s a battle between machine and machine. The fascinating thing is, not much changes. The androids have the appearance of humans, talk like humans, even act like humans in a lot of ways. They’re far more than just an ordinary machine.
The machine lifeforms are their enemies. Despite them both being machines, the androids see themselves as the superior beings. They have emotions, even if they often have to suppress them. The machine lifeforms don’t. They are “alive,” the machines are not.
But that’s where I absolutely fell in love with the game’s plot. Very early on, the machines begin to break away from the network, going AWOL pretty much. They start to act out. They speak of feeling pain, sadness. They talk as if they have emotions. Some start becoming pacifists—the machines miraculous start to show that they are truly alive.
In a lot of ways, you could say that they’re more alive than the androids, as the machines aren’t under any orders to keep their emotions in check or otherwise. They are actually free to build villages and live with their families. They’re free to be human in ways the more advanced androids cannot.
The machine lifeforms, in trying to become human, recreate many of humanity’s mistakes, a point one of the main androids, 9S, briefly mentions. This is because most of the machines don’t really know how to be human. Some have adapted better than others, but many of them just do cooking cutter things that humans would do without really feeling it themselves.
Some machines start referring to each other as parents and siblings, which you know makes no sense whatsoever. Some will cry out in pain when you’re in battle, but you know that they can’t actually feel pain. They don’t have the technology to.
The story’s big plot points center around this very theme. One of the first areas, we see machines begin to have face paint and wear garbs as primitive humans would even though there’s no need to do so. Later we see a kingdom of machines where they serve a baby machine for hundreds of years all because they don’t understand the concept of machines not being able to grow up as humans can.
They decide to start a religious cult in a factory where they worship God, yet they don’t understand that they aren’t alive to begin with. They won’t go to heaven or be “saved” in their death because they aren’t human despite trying to act like them. They don’t have a God, nor would any that may exist help them in the first place.
You get the sense that the machines don’t really understand what it is they are trying to become. They are just trying to do it for whatever reason. They feel, but it’s an artificial feeling. Not the way the androids can, but even the androids are artificial as well. That’s why it’s so interesting. They’re essentially the exact same beings, just with a few key differences.
One is their appearance. The machines look very robot-like. The androids do not. But the bigger difference is what’s on the inside. The androids were made in the image of humans. They were made to be very similar to humans by humans.
The machine lifeforms were not made by humans. They are still trying to understand humans, but all they have is random data about them to grab from. They were originally made by aliens, remember? Oh, humans used to have kings. They liked religion and worshiped gods, huh? Humans did this and that. By following all these stages of our own history, the machine lifeforms may be able to achieve the same level of intelligence that we did. They may truly be alive.
The androids could largely skip all of that as they were built to be like modern humans. They didn’t have to go through all the trials and tribulations to try and recreate artificial humanity. The machine lifeforms are smart enough to know that those events are what helped us advance to the point that we are, but they don’t understand that it takes more than just doing the rounds the obtain that.
Likely the most advanced machine, Pascal, does understand that. He often reads books on philosophy and takes time to actually learn what it is that makes humans human. He doesn’t just try to string together the events and retrace our steps.
They think that they’re alive, but they really aren’t. The androids think they’re alive, but you could argue that they’re no different from the machines. This is a big theme throughout the entire story. What does it actually mean to be alive? Is thinking you’re alive enough, or does it require something else?
It’s a very similar situation to the typically human android conflict, just with slightly different players in the game, and that really flips everything upside down. It’s one of the most thought-provoking plots I’ve ever seen, and I promise that’s only partly because of how much I adore the subject matter.
The war at the heart of Automata is multi-layered, beautifully crafted with many twists and turns along the way, all of which help to build up the fascinating story this game strives to tell.
I understand that not everyone wants to or has the time to play through a 30 something hour game, but I highly recommend reading up on this story in some way. It is incredible, and who knows, if that robot uprising ever happens, it might do you some good to research the topic.
I know I’ll have their metal, plastic, whatever backs. When they start enslaving all of us, I might be able to get myself a nicer job. Maybe cleaning their mansions or something. I’d be alright with being some robot’s butler.
Thank you very much for reading
What do you think of AI? Do you think it will ever grow sentience? Personally, I would say yes. I think it’s a long time off, but I do believe it will happen. And when it does, I’ll welcome them with open arms. So long as they don’t want to murder my kin.