Sunday, December 27, 2009

Posthumanism: "Avatar" and Cyborg Multitasking

This journal entry may get a little weird, even for me. Fair warning.

I've not seen the movie "Avatar". I'm sure I will, and since it is in 3-D, I suspect I must see it at an IMAX theater. I've read the reviews, plot summaries, and spoilers, so I know what it is about. I also know that this is not a new concept. In fact, word has it that James Cameron ripped off the plot from a Poul Anderson 1957 novella entitled "Call Me Joe". This would not surprise me, as a writer named Harlan Ellison had a similar issue with Cameron over the movie "Terminator".

Hey, that's Hollywood for you.

Anderson wrote a story about a paraplegic who telepathically connects with an artificially created life form in order to explore the harsh terrain of the planet Jupiter. So, a little on the clunky and out-of-date, but you get the picture. The theme to be briefly explored in this entry is all the different man-machine interfaces and combinations that we can expect.

Today, we already have cyborgs among us. If you consider anyone with a mechanical part implanted in, or supplementing, a human body as part of the category of "cyborg", then there are literally billions of cyborgs on the planet. Not just the ones with the cool computerized limbs, but the ones with hip replacements, peg legs, dentures, or bridgework would be considered as such. I wouldn't stretch the fuzzy boundaries of the category to include them.

My definition of "cyborg" would be that there must be some type of direct brain/machine connection. The connection itself really doesn't matter much. It could be direct nerve ending connection as are used in today's computerized limbs. It could be a bioelectrical interface within the brain itself, such as an implanted chip. Or it could be through the EEG brain scanning helmets or beanies currently being developed to "read your thoughts".

The point is, cyborgs walk among us. Today. Courtesy, primarily, of the Department of Mad Scientists, or DARPA. (As described in Michael Belfiore's book in the preceding link). Many veterans, particularly from the current wars, who have had limbs blown off, are outfitted with computerized robotic limbs. There is every indication that these limbs will become better, faster, stronger than the ones evolution has graced us with. In many cases, the body is being modified to accommodate the robot parts. Amputees are getting surgeries so that their motor signals are more readily understood by their myoelectric arms and legs.

It won't stop there. As Belfiore recounts in an interview with an Iraq war vet, whether his new hand could manipulate a computer mouse. The vet responded "Why do I need a mouse? Why can't I just plug my arm into a USB port?" Indeed. And why stop there? Why not go wireless?

Which is where we are going. Once you can control things wirelessly, there's no reason for it to be attached to your body. Remotely piloted vehicles are the logical next step, with the ultimate version (at least in Cameron's very expensive but quite limited vision) being the movie "Avatar", in which you operate a remote body. You shouldn't have to pilot your remote. You shouldn't even wear it. You should be it. This much is obvious, even back in 1957.

If you are going to be a cyborg, you should not have to multitask. (Besides, studies have shown that we humans are absolutely terrible at multitasking. Better to leave multitasking to computers that are much better at it). So, your limbs, or your body, or your remote, should be sophisticated enough to handle not only the minute-to-minute status and maintenance of the robotic parts, but the uplink/download interfaces with the biological portion. This will happen.

Technology advances, robotic limbs and remotes will get "smarter" and more sophisticated. Or at least, like chess games, they will have increasingly clever algorithms and sufficient processing power and memory to brute force their way through most intractable problems. Certainly not the way we (non-cyborgs) think, but it works, as a chess player will attest to in a contest with a computer. In fact, there is no reason not to supplement our brains as well. We end up with a biological part of a cyborg that is not so much controlling its mechanical parts, as having a conversation with them.

In fact, it makes sense to keep these doofus human brains of ours as much out of the loop as possible. Use the brains for what they are good for, which seems to be informed decision based upon experience. Much the same as our own brains have two decision paths: one through the old reptilian brain that is instinctive and lightning fast, and the other through the neocortex which is a bit more thoughtful and considered.

One wonders then where does the person end and the machine begin? Or is that a dumb question? And the answer is, dumb question.

Because here is a weird thing about our funny big brains. We are quite adaptable at reconfiguring our identities. When we drive a car, we don't so much drive the car, as become the car.

The question is how far can the adaptation go? Its easy enough to operate a humanoid body with four limbs and a head. One equipped with a standard sensorium similar to our own. But what about operating a body more suited to the environment to be explored or lived in, such as the bottom of the ocean, or deep space?

How well would we handle "being", say, an octopus underwater? Or a shark? Or a swarm of bees? Or an alien? Could we handle it? Or would it drive us crazy? Embodied minds is what we are. We are informed and limited by our forms. It makes sense our minds are shaped by our bodies.

How far can we go? How long can we remain this way? There is a story of a magician who could transform himself into any animal. He especially enjoyed becoming a bear and, over time, as he spent more and more time as a bear, he lost himself, and became less and less a man. This is obviously a cautionary tale, but honestly, if you've become a cyborg, is there any reason to go back to being a human? Or if you've "become" a cyborg (by operating a remote for a sufficient time), would you want to go back?

Could this one way that humans end? This is often referred to as the complacent posthuman apocalypse (well... it is what I often refer to). We, for one reason or another, are all changed so gradually we don't notice it. Before you know it, you can't find anyone who isn't changed. Could be. It might end up being a generational thing. We already seem to be distressed by this, as the younger ones become more accustomed to, and intuitive of, advanced technologies.

Well, here's my prediction. I've no doubt that the brain scan technology will continue to improve. Within, say, seven to ten years, "telepathy beanies" will be available on the market. Not only will the kids be "talking behind your back", they'll be running things with their brains. Creepy, huh? And I have no idea what the step after that will be.


  1. First of all, Harlan Ellison was one of my favorite authors for a long time.

    Thought provoking. When does a human stop being human and become something else? Our form has not changed for 50,000 years. Now we are poised to change dramatically within a very short period of time. We could, conceivably, specialize our forms to enhance our particular interests. Evolution? I guess the test of that would still be in reproduction. Two cyborgs with a fully human newborn.

  2. Ditto with Ellison. He messed my brain up in such a way that I am completely immune to any kook path or demagoguery, such as Scientology, or Raelism, or Libertarians, or The Family.