Monday, October 18, 2004

Exchanging Technology for Humanity

Science fiction books and films often capitalize on themes which propose dehumanizing conditions and situations which have direct association to fictitious technologies. These themes explore the challenges people face to preserve their humanity, discipline and the structure of their minds and bodies, when they are offered an attractive attractive technology.

Technology offers freedom from mental and physical exertion. It enhances communication and imparts financial power. The physical and social impact of technology is often obscured by astounding short term benefit. There are many situations where people might bewilling to compromise ethics, social skills and even human compassion for the benefits of technology.

Cybernetic Augmentation

Advancement in prosthetics have cultivated the idea of modifying the human frame or senses with advanced mechanisms. This is cyborg technology; The meshing of human beings with machines. There are issues with the potential irreversibility of any process which replaces human limbs or organs. Life sustaining vulnerability puts the person at the mercy of his, her or its maintenance crew. People surrender some aspect of physical appearance, mental function, senses or organ function. What they gain is usually superior power or performance.

In William Gibson's book Neuromancer, a technology was developed to augment, or Wet wire the brain with a microscopic computer and data retrieval system. This allowed a person to recall information instantly and gave them a lightning fast thought-based mental terminal which they could use to communicate over the Internet of the future.

In Peter F. Hamilton's bookThe Reality Dysfunction almost everybody had an integrated means of mental communication called neuro nanonics. People could load programs to control their biological reactions to stressful or even passionate situations by injecting adrenaline or endorphins into the blood. People could load information from a remote location, or submit information for remote analysis.

Cyborg technology created the sort of unscrupulous leverage that was used against the Alex Murphy character in the Robocop series. Corporate maneuvering, insensitive to human needs, placed this cop in a position where he was critically injured. He was allowed to deliberately expire within legal definitions, which placed him in the hands of corporate scientists who stripped him of most of his human factors. This film showed how the situation removed human ethics from executives and coworkers; It also showed physical humanity removed from the main character. In the end, Murphy's compassion, logic and lost love of his wife overwhelmed the controls of his cyborg chassis, becoming the most valuable part of the Robocop character.

The Johnny Mnemonic character, for the money to nourish a playboy lifestyle, stored volatile corporate data records in his brain via an implant. The consequences were his deliberate and conscious erasure of his childhood memories. The street preacher and Johnny's girl companion Jade are jacked-up with muscular implants which enhance their physical speed and strength. The preacher has sacrificed his physical and moral character. He spends all of his efforts torturing people and collecting bounty to pay for maintenance on his implants.

In Star Trek: First Contact, The Borg are a society which represents total human capitulation to cybernetic technology. These people have completely transformed their culture to a collective hive conscience, completely immersing the humanoid individual into synthetic oblivion.

The consequences of such technology is that future people can think less and feel less on their own. They can have total logical and analytical control of their humanity, or surrender that control to a communal power. Unfortunately, human creativity and artistry are often products of stress and mental training. If people unburdened themselves of the need to memorize, analyze and improvise, how much of the creative mind would be unloaded with that burden? It could be imagined that the people of Hamilton's books could fall slowly, over centuries, into complete technical dependence. This could smear their social structure into the cybernetic totalitarianism of the Borg culture.

Genetic Augmentation

A person's physical attributes and characteristics could, with the appropriate technology, be genetically programmed. This would deliberately alter the human formula that random nature intended for that person. There is a highly debatable question of the ethics of this type of modification. It is argued from a religious standpoint, that these technologies would rob an individual of their genetic destiny. If your parents chose a eugenics plan for you, prior to your birth, you would have been circumcized of the fate intended by your original genotype.

In Peter F. Hamilton's books The Reality Dysfunction and The Neutronium Alchemist, People's genes have been used to create sentient and intelligent living star ships and space habitats with vast neural strata which hold entire collections of human memories and personalities. The Edenist culture breeds these creations along with their people. The individuals are bred with an Affinity gene which gives them a communal telepathic link to all members of the Edenist culture from the moment of birth.

In the Dune series of books, Frank Herbert treats this situation at length. There is a drug, the spice melange, which has mutative properties. The Bene Gesserit, or reverend mothers, take a concentrate of this drug which transform them into powerful psychics capable of mental manipulation of their own bodily processes. It gives them power over weak minded people. They also practice strict and ordered programs of high powered eugenics. The consequences of this are twofold. All of the repressed memories of past genetic lineage are awakened into a conscience state within the individual. The mind of the individual now becomes a mind of many. This allows the reverend mother to call upon the direct knowledge of her genetic predecessors. She gives up her individuality to a permanent state of mental community. The other consequence is a permanent, fatal if reversed, addiction to the spice.

The Guild Navigators live, breathe and consume spice constantly. They are completely transformed, in a long and painful process from human beings into non-human psychic biological entities. These creatures are capable of directing star ships through dimensional space folding. They need a constant infusion of the spice, just to survive.

Ironically, in Herbert's books, a religious war, the Butlerian Jihad, was waged against computer technologies, for fear that artificial intelligence was a threat to man. Computer services were supplanted by human Mentats, which were spice boosted logicians capable of super-computer like thought processes.

If a personality was born as a star ship or a habitat, as Hamilton suggests, they might not feel purloined of any higher purpose. The people of Herbert's Dune deliberately surrendered their humanity for power and social advantage. A person who feels that family genetics and traits are important, might be disturbed by the notion that these things, necessarily random in purpose, could be displaced for a cosmetic or utility purpose. Should people have a line item veto on the genetic structure of their children?

Mental Augmentation

If the technology for direct thought or memory implantation were developed, then humans could be taught complex subjects directly. It could also lead to covert and undetected manipulation of the human mind. What if a person was implanted with a murderer's memories of a murder scene? This person could be indicted for a murder, with guilty memories and all, for a crime they did not commit. It is not known how much effect raw memories have in the integral nature of a persons analytical and moral structure.

In Larry Niven's book World out of Time, memory RNA from people who were knowledgeable in a specialty, was synthesized for injection; This chemical therapy, in coincidence with audio visual stimulation, accelerated the learning process in these new individuals, to train them for long term tasks.

In Total Recall, Douglas Quaid was an individual who totally lost his grip on reality due to a technology which could implant memories in the brain. These memories could not be distinguished from real experiences. Throughout the entire film, even the audience was left wondering whether the character was experiencing reality, or a horrible memory implant accident, which had spiraled out of control.

In Blade Runner false memories were used to ease the psychological instabilities of the sentient android Replicants. These artificial people, not knowing that the memories were implanted, believed in the artificial past history imparted to them. There is a powerful scene where a woman, Rachel, visits Deckard. She does not know she is a replicant. Deckard recites a childhood memory to her which nobody but she could know. In this one short scene, all of the players are indicted. Deckard reveals a streak of cruelty by reciting the memory. He attempts to reconcile this, after seeing Rachel's reaction. Dr. Tyrell, Rachel's creator, is revealed as the cruel architect of Rachel's false memories. Rachel, a person who was convinced of her humanity, must deal with the stabbing horror that her life is a complete fabrication.

Memories affect the form and function of our personalities. If we had a technology which could implant them, then we could corrupt and obscure the role that actual experiences have in shaping us as individuals.

Transportation of Conscience

In World out of Time, people who were frozen in cryogenic stasis were uniquely recovered. Mortally damaged by disease and degradation of the long term freezing process, they had their minds electronically resurrected into the bodies of criminals. These criminals had their personalities wiped away for capital crimes. People from the past would awake into a body that was not their own, and into a society which expected them to use that body to pay, by forced labor, for a crime they did not commit. Their original bodies were ground up and leeched for remnants of memory RNA, which was injected into the new body, to complete the personality transfer.

The Reality Dysfunction describes how the Edenist society permits its members to transfer their entire conscience into the personality of a habitat through the Affinity link just prior to death. The individual's personality cannot develop further in this existence, but it can dwell for decades, unchanging, until it decides to diffuse into the habitat's general personality distributed within the neural strata.

In Johnny Mnemonic a woman who had biologically expired, transferred her conscience into the Internet. She dwelled in this existence, as a thinking being or ghost in the machine as the character Takahashi observed.

In the film Freejack, the society elite use temporal abduction to snatch people from the past. They take people moments before fatal circumstances were to destroy them naturally. This would prevent the abduction from corrupting the time line. When they are retrieved, their personalities are wiped out to make room for the old, sick or injured citizen who paid for the retrieval.

A technology which permits the transfer of total conscience and personality into machines, or other people, permits people to thwart the natural passage of life. People can exist, in some fashion, without confronting the consequences of an afterlife. It also poses situations where people might be defined as property.

Cultured Sentience

It may be possible to create other living, thinking beings using technology. The problem that arises is in the ethical treatment of something intelligent, with feelings and emotions, as manufactured property. This is the moral equivalent of slavery.

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the entire society was deliberately engineered and decanted from artificial incubation. Embryos from the Delta and Epsilon social casts were deliberately starved of oxygen and poisoned with alchohol to ensure a level of mental function suitable for a life of garbage collection, sanitation and menial work.

The starship voidhawks, blackhawks and the Edenist habitats of Hamilton's books are born in space and develop as distinct super intelligent sentient beings. They are engineered with an Affinity and purpose to serve the Edenist society. They don't have any internal drive to be independent or self serving. If a living, intelligent being is engineered to be content in its social purpose, how can it identify the loss of a freedom it never had.

In Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dicks book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, androids are manufactured out of human genetic material. The manufacturing process has been refined to the point where these people are mentally and physically superior to humans. They begin to have feelings, emotions and a drive for independence and longevity. This phenomena has forced people to exterminate any androids on the surface of the earth, under penalty of death. Someone has to do the killing, and then live with themselves afterwards.

Blade Runner, perhaps the most prophetic science fiction film ever made, is a film which is a highly concentrated example of the human impact of technology. Rick Deckard is a blade runner, or a police officer who must kill android replicants. This film shows the multi-faceted human consequences of the replicant technology. Deckard struggles with the ethics and morality of terminating living thinking beings. The detective Gaff, monitoring Deckard's efforts, lives a life absent of compassion for anybody. The genetic designers, Tyrell and Sebastian, are totally reclusive and detached from society. In fact, Sebastian underscores this reality by bragging about making friends, referring to actual living puppets which he created, that roam about his apartment to keep him company. Tyrell coldly and callously describes the clinical manipulation of replicant memories and lifespans.

Many of the themes involving artificial intelligence and our responsibility towards it suggest that our technology is evolving at a pace which is orders of magnitude faster than the pace of social development and civilized behavior. It would be a horrible situation if sometime, in the near future, individuals were cloned and the clones raised like cattle to adulthood; The adults then harvested for new organs to extend the lives of their progenitors.

The Here and Now

You may soon be able to program the genetic hair color, nose shape, and eye color of your unborn child for a price. You may be able to have cybernetic neural implants which directly stimulate the pleasure center of your brain; A perfect and unshakeable addiction, better than sex, without the physical consequences of a chemical or romantic habit. You may be able to access and digest information through neural embedded implants. This will be accepted by many. The enormous and immediate advantage to these individuals will engender enormous and immediate social pressure to all unmodified people to receive the upgrade, or fall quickly behind the tide of society. When fossil fuels run out, you may drive a car with an organic engine with a simple brain, which runs on sugar and protien; You might wonder if this thing suffers from its burdens. The themes of science fiction films and books serve to remind and warn people to very carefully mediate the benefits of technology with social responsibility.


Uber said...

The imagination is the limit it would seem. Fascinating and frightening at the same time...
Very good read. :)

Insolublog said...

This was a fun post. Most people aren't interested in the long ones.