Humanity won’t find it easy to let it go. At least since William Gibson’s Neuromancer, writers and filmmakers have attempted to replace the alien/god figure with artificial intelligence. But several considerations temper the long-term viability of this solution. First, it’s unclear when—or even if—humanity will achieve genuine AI. But even if it does, an artificial mind might not be sufficiently different from its human designers to constitute a genuinely alien kind of intelligence. One like the god machines of The Matrix, say, rather than just a weirder version of human thought. Almost anything is possible. But if it’s not likely that aliens will take the place of God, then it’s also unlikely that AI will. Our most probable, foreseeable future is occupied by a single, human intelligence, even if it’s one adorned with artificial tools and enhancements.
If secular culture eventually gives up the vestigial trappings of alien or artificial gods, it need not sacrifice their mystery in the process. The singularity of human intelligence has a paradoxical quality of its own.
Individuals obtain their identity through relations with others. If there were no other people, you wouldn’t know what kind of person you are. When I was little, I used to pretend my parents’ tiny lawn was the map of an imaginary nation. I told another child this, and they laughed at me. It had a surprising impact on my identity, in the moment and over time. If the other child had instead looked at me and whispered, “Me too,” that would have shaped my sense of self in a different way. Naturally, more solemn versions of that event manifest themselves through race and gender, among other markers of identity. Through encounters with others, the molten, fluid self begins to cool and harden.
But if there is no other, you have no identity. In the science fiction of the future, the future in which humanity stands alone at the center of all meaning in space and time, we may begin to lose our shapes. Right now, at this moment, human identity is beginning to dissolve and change. What kinds of stories will we tell about our species when we no longer expect some other—an alien, a god—to tell us who we are?
In countless science fictions—from The War of the Worlds to the Syfy series The Expanse—an alien invasion invites the Earth’s squabbling peoples to realize their common humanity. But if there is no alien, it may become harder to see what an American and a Russian, or a New Yorker and an Alabaman, have in common. One path our future literature might take is to transfer alienness from different extraterrestrial species to different terrestrial cultural groups. Such a literature could draw on the rich vein of writing—from Edmund Burke to Toni Morrison—that depicts people as bound so tightly to the literal and metaphorical soil of their origin that communication across cultural, racial, national, or sexual borders becomes as fraught and difficult as communication across different species. Every day, we see this mode of thinking at work in our culture.