Fantasy and Fiction is What Makes Us Human?


by Andy Peloquin

Humans are the only species to attach significant value on any form of art. Let’s be clear: animals can be taught to paint, draw, even write, but only humans go out of their way to create art.

So what if that innate sense of creativity plays a larger role in our humanity than we think? What if the desire to create art—stories, paintings, poems, sculptures, music, and more—is what makes us human?

I found something fascinating in an article on Psychology Today. The article talks about how a think tank believes exposing artificial intelligences to stories could make them more human. Essentially, exposing AIs to stories, they showcased human values and social norms. The AIs were then rewarded for mirroring the decisions and behavior of the protagonists of the stories.

Running through the simulations of human emotions (jealousy, the thrill of a new love, pain, sorrow, etc.) actually helps US to feel more empathy for others. Fiction puts us through that simulation by taking us on the emotional journeys of our characters. It increases interpersonal sensitivity, enhances empathic abilities, broadens perspective, reduces gender stereotyping, and reduces prejudice. If it can do all that for humans, imagine what it could do for artificial intelligences trying to learn what it means to “be human”.

But that’s not all fiction, fantasy, and stories can do for humans. Our past experiences—the good, bad, and ugly—are what have made us who we are. All the stories we can tell, the memories we can relive, and the positive and negative emotions we experience affect current and future behavior. Our view is colored by the unique combination of everything we have lived.

An AI is like a baby: no experience, no understanding, no relation to anything in the world around it. It has to be exposed to human experiences in order to gain understanding of what it means to be human. Stories—fiction and real-life–help to create all the above-mentioned feelings, basically helping to “build” the AI by giving them stories to shape their perceptions, beliefs, and understanding.

In Westworld, all of the “hosts” (robots) were given back-stories to make them seem more realistic. All humans have stories to tell, so that back story addition played a major role in bringing the theme park to life.

Humans want to tell, hear, and read stories—it’s what makes us who and what we are!

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