By Baiju Parthan
Is consciousness purely material? If so in the future, we may be heading for the cyborg—a man-machine symbiosis—when even our thoughts may be determined by silicon implants.
Anyone who has seen the movie Terminator starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar knows what a ‘cyborg’ looks like—patently human, just like you and me. But beneath the familiar exterior, it is a cold and logical machine that thinks in algorithms and displays a strength and precision way beyond human capabilities.
Of course, the Terminator was a nasty piece of machinery programmed to eliminate humans—obviously a reflection of our deep-rooted mistrust and revulsion for machines that show anything resembling motivation and intelligence. But such negative attitudes towards machines are fast becoming obsolete as the digital revolution remolds our perceptions about life, the body, and machines in general.
‘Cyborg’ is actually a science fiction shortening of ‘cybernetic organism’. The idea is that, in the future, we may have more and more artificial body parts—arms, legs, hearts, eyes and so on—till one might end up finally as a brain in a wholly artificial body. The fact that our ideas about what constitutes a machine have changed notably is evident in the ubiquitous desktop personal computer that’s capable of instantaneously morphing from a word processor into an entertainment centre playing music and video. Or from an accounting machine into a speech synthesizer or a game station within the span of a mouse click. A far cry from the oil-spewing, smoke-belching, noisy clumps of twisted metal that represented machines of the past.
As the attributes of machines changed, our basic attitudes toward them underwent a remarkable shift. For many of us, the computer is no longer a cold grey machine, but a trusted assistant without which everyday business would come to a grinding halt. In the mid-’80s, science fiction writer William Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’, and offered the vision of a man-machine linkup at the neurological level hinting at some sort of techno-transcendence. A decade later we have the World Wide Web or the Internet, which is actually a machine, and the race to achieve such a man-machine linkup is on. The idea is to be linked to the Internet through surgically-implanted chips capable of wireless communication with the Net: making you physically here and virtually embodied in cyberspace. Virtual reality as a technology is still in its infancy, but once perfected we would have individuals with the implants for wireless linkup opting to spend most of their time in designer realities and virtual heavens.
This Gibsonian world of man-machine symbiosis is a direction we are definitely moving towards, amply demonstrated by the recent chip implant on 44-year-old professor of cybernetics, Kevin Warwick from the University of Reading, Britain. The implanted chip in his left arm wirelessly linked him to the network, made his office welcome him in the morning, turned on his computer, switched on the lights in the office corridor, opened doors and even helped his secretary track him irrespective of where he was on the campus. After a week of this, when the implant was removed from his body terminating the linkup, Professor Warwick experienced a sense of loss as though he was cut off from something, similar to a shared sense of being with the computer network. He later admitted that with the implant he had felt ‘an affinity to the computer’.
This shift in our attitude towards machines and machine intelligence is gradually gaining legitimacy. Identified as ‘post-humanism’, this new ideology endorses the idea that humans need to involve intelligent machines in the evolutionary process. The proponents of post-humanism perceive this involvement as using technology to overcome our physical and mental limits.
As machines continue their rapid evolution towards increased miniaturization and functionality, and as we keep tinkering with our bodies and brains at the molecular and genetic level, this involvement will become more feasible. For instance, the problem of how to increase human intelligence is being approached from various angles. One approach is the use of chemicals like Vasopressin to enhance already existing processes in the brain such as memory. The other is an attempt to link the brain directly to computers. Such brain-computerinterfaces could amplify the processes that constitute the human mind to unimaginable levels. The computers could be small enough to be implanted within the body of the user.
According to post-humanist thinker Max More: ‘A human brain reasons, creates, feels, plans, calculates, appreciates. These properties of living, conscious beings result from the immensely complicated connections among our billions of neurons. An individual neuron by itself displays no consciousness, reasoning, or creativity. The neuron is a biochemical machine. We should therefore be able to replace or repair damaged neural tissue with implants and supplement biological neurons with synthetic neurons while retaining the same functions. We should be able to add memory, processing power, and new abilities by doing so. In principle, we could replace all our neurons until we had an entirely synthetic or prosthetic brain. If the new neurons worked similarly to the old, and were connected up the same, we would never notice the difference.’
By far the most ambitious project of this kind is ‘migration through silicon’ or ‘uploading’, which involves putting the mind into a machine. Uploading or ‘migration through silicon’ plainly means transferring or duplicating the mental processes of a living person along with his/her identity on to a specially designed computer. Once a mind is successfully transferred on to silicon, one could modify that mind by increasing the scope of the senses or even add new senses. Or increase and enlarge the memory functions by creating remote links to all the existing records in human cultural and intellectual history. One could eliminate unnecessary activities like sleeping, or eliminate unwanted personality traits, instal new ones, invent new emotions, dream while fully awake, choose what emotions and moods to experience, inhabit artificial bodies of either sex or of completely new sexes, experience completely imaginary states of being, and so on…
The truth is those among us who use a pacemaker to sustain the normal heart functions and be alive are in effect part-machine and part-human, a minor cyborg. But in the vision of the future, presented by people like Gibson, intelligent technology intrudes into the hitherto sacred space of the human body to morph into a tool that offers transformation and transcendence. The future is no longer seen to be existing out there, where life is full of pain and all-too-human suffering, but within a digitally constructed space, melded with the nerves and guided by all-knowing machines.
Post-humanism and other technocentric New Age philosophies seem to be preparing us for this radically different world we are going to inhabit, where we will coexist with intelligent machines by integrating them into our own being. Perhaps that is the only way we can prevent ourselves from being at the mercy of our own magnificent creation-the super-intelligent machine.
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