« Running a conference | Main | The virtues of playing dice »

March 08, 2005

Of Men and Machines

The human concept of self is incredibly flexible. Yet we are often quite attached to the notion that our self is somehow special, e.g., many of us dislike believing that our mind is actually just an emergent property of the mechanics of our neurocircuitry. Because our mind feels so separate from our body, mustn't it be so? If the body is just the thing that the mind inhabits, then augmenting the body with machinery should do nothing to our sense of self or our mind, right? But can the main withstand the brain itself being augmented? Sure, we've not yet blurred the distinction between man and machine to the extent that Masamune Shirow does in the incredibly elegant universe of Ghost in the Shell (2 manga series, 2 movies, and 1 tv series, so far), but only those who haven't been paying attention to history will deny that we are moving in that direction. Such a future holds promises of things like externalized memory, thought-controlled computers, and artificial eyes that see a much wider range of the electromagnetic spectrum are just a few of the things that may come to pass. Or, if you prefer more benevolent applications, fully functional replacement limbs for amputees, replacement wrists for those of us with carpal tunnel syndrome, etc. These are the stuffs of science-fiction today.

But consider the recent progress in interfacing brains and machines, like a monkey learning to control a robotic arm with neural impulses. Again, if you prefer less extreme examples, consider the everyday task of driving a car, in which you exhibit your extremely flexible sense of spatial self-extent. How is it that you can "sense" how close your car is to the curb when you park? Or, navigate a parking lot with as much ease as you would navigate a crowded room? Consider any video game, in which players inevitably gain an amazing degree of control over their virtual avatar by mentally mapping hand-movements into visual feedback. Or, consider that whenever you pick up an object in your hand, like a pencil, your brain extends its sense of 'self' to encompass the extent of that object. For all practical purposes, that object becomes a part of you while it's in your hand, or at least, your brain treats it as such. Basically, the human brain easily adapts to whatever regularities it perceives in its streams of input, so there seems to be no reason, in principle, why it couldn't learn to use a mechanical body part in lieu of an organic one just as easily as you learn to wield that pencil or a tennis racket.

Although cybernetic limbs may seem an outlandish possibility, for amputees, they are the freedom to participate more fully in society. One of the most interesting and amazing ventures in this domain is the biomechanics lab at the MIT Media Lab, which is itself run by a man with artificial legs. When I was touring the Media Lab back in January, this was the group that I thought was the most interesting and one of the few that seemed to being doing real science that has the potential to dramatically alter the world. But, what happens when one can make a prosthetic arm that not only does everything a real arm does, but does it better than the original, and perhaps does more? Won't people then choose to become an amputee in order to gain those advantages. For thousands of years, humans have preferred the advantages of tools over the basic abilities granted us by evolution (well, unless you're Amish), so isn't cybernetic enhancement the logical extension of this tendency? The usefulness of machines lies in their extending our own small set of abilities to a much larger set of possibilities. Cars let us go faster and longer than our legs allow; planes let us fly without needing wings; and computers let us (among other things) stay organized at the global level. Machines gives us the ability to surpass our humble roots and achieve the things that our imaginations dream up.

This premise of choosing cybernetic body-enhancements over the natural body is the basis for much of the plot of Ghost in the Shell (and much of the cyberpunk literature). But ultimately, I don't think that it will be science that has the most trouble with putting flesh and steel in the proverbial blender, but rather humanity's deeply rooted fear of the unknown. If biomechanical enhancement ever becomes popular, i.e., beyond a medical need, I'm sure there will be hate-crimes perpetrated against those participants for betraying humanity, or becoming inhuman monsters. The religious right along with other fearful and conservative groups will condemn the practice as ungodly, and try to make non-medical augmentation illegal. But I doubt the public discourse on augmentation will really address the fundamental question of humanity that Ghost in the Shell explores (as does another of my favorite manga series, Battle Angel Alita). That is, how many body parts are you willing to replace with mechanical versions before you begin to feel less "human"? Will the choice of getting a mechanical part that is visually dissimilar to its organic version actually be a choice of reducing your apparent humanity? (Won't people treat you differently if you don't look human?) Which is more human, a completely human brain encased in a completely mechanical body, or a completely mechanical brain encased in a completely human body? If the mechanical brain is functionally equivalent to the human brain, can it be considered legitimately different? What if we put that completely mechanical brain in a completely mechanical body? What happens when an "artificial" human learns to behave like a real human? (As, for instance, in the exquisite vision of Blade Runner.)

In Ghost in the Shell, the protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, equipped with a state-of-the-art cyborg body that contains just her brain/spinal column, is in the midst of wrestling with these questions when a completely digital life form known as The Puppeteer asks her to merge with him to become a new form of life in the sea of information on the Internets. Although the end of the movie may be far-fetched, it's somewhat reassuring that Ghost in the Shell is so popular. It suggests the existence of a large population of people who are thinking about these questions as we move ever closer to a world in which, largely by force of will alone, we are able to sculpt our exteriors to suit our whimsical and shallow interior.

A few questions to ponder in closing:

- When cyborg bodies of custom design are available, won't we choose to make them all beautiful?

- What are the security implications of everyone having wireless connectivity from inside their skull to the Internet?

- When computers and brains can exchange data seamlessly, what kind of crime will brain-hacking be?

- Will the ability to sculpt our exteriors into machines allow us to circumvent the faster-than-light problem with space colonization?
- If you could have a mechanical arm that did everything your current arm does, but does it better, faster, is stronger, never tires, etc., would you really give up your own flesh for that enhancement?

(Pictures taken from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence; first is from the opening sequence in which a solo-copter is circling Tokyo; the second is Batou and Togusa conversing about their recent harrowing mental battle with a super-hacker.)

Update: Cosma Shalizi points out that Andy Clark explores this topic in great depth in his "Natural-Born Cyborgs" - I will definitely be picking up a copy of this!

posted March 8, 2005 01:50 AM in Thinking Aloud | permalink


Hello. I found your website when performing the odd Google Scholar search "measuring the rate of output of water from faucet." This uncovered the paper "Chaos You Can Play In," which I found really neat, though unfortunately much of the math is currently over my head.

Anyway, I'd just like to comment that I enjoy your journal for the interesting ideas and precise writing. Thanks.

Posted by: Mike Nolan at March 25, 2005 12:25 AM