All posts for the month March, 2016

[UPDATED 03/28/16: Post has been updated with a far higher quality of audio, thanks to the work of Chris Novus. (Direct Link to the Mp3)]

So, if you follow the newsletter, then you know that I was asked to give the March lecture for my department’s 3rd Thursday Brown Bag Lecture Series. I presented my preliminary research for the paper which I’ll be giving in Vancouver, about two months from now, “On the Moral, Legal, and Social Implications of the Rearing and Development of Nascent Machine Intelligences” (EDIT: My rundown of IEEE Ethics 2016 is here and here).

It touches on thoughts about everything from algorithmic bias, to automation and a post-work(er) economy, to discussions of what it would mean to put dolphins on trial for murder.

About the dolphin thing, for instance: If we recognise Dolphins and other cetaceans as nonhuman persons, as India has done, then that would mean we would have to start reassessing how nonhuman personhood intersects with human personhood, including in regards to rights and responsibilities as protected by law. Is it meaningful to expect a dolphin to understand “wrongful death?” Our current definition of murder is predicated on a literal understanding of “homicide” as “death of a human,” but, at present, we only define other humans as capable of and culpable for homicide. What weight would the intentional and malicious deaths of nonhuman persons carry?

All of this would have to change.

Anyway, this audio is a little choppy and sketchy, for a number of reasons, and I while I tried to clean it up as much as I could, some of the questions the audience asked aren’t decipherable, except in the context of my answers. All that being said, this was an informal lecture version of an in-process paper, of which there’ll be a much better version, soon, but the content of the piece is… timely, I felt. So I hope you enjoy it.

Until Next Time.

This work originally appears as “Go Upgrade Yourself,” in the edited volume Futurama and Philosophy. It was originally titled

The Upgrading of Hermes Conrad

So, you’re tired of your squishy meatsack of a body, eh? Ready for the next level of sweet biomechanical upgrades? Well, you’re in luck! The world of Futurama has the finest in back-alley and mad-scientist-based bio-augmentation surgeons, ready and waiting to hear from you! From a fresh set of gills, to a brand new chest-harpoon, and beyond, Yuri the Shady Parts Dealer and Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth are here to supply all of your upgrading needs—“You give lungs now; gills be here in two weeks!” Just so long as, whatever you do, stay away from legitimate hospitals. The kinds of procedures you’re looking to get done…well, let’s just say they’re still frowned upon in the 31st century; and why shouldn’t they be? As the woeful tale of Hermes Conrad illustrates exactly what’s at stake if you choose to pursue your biomechanical dreams.


The Six Million Dollar Mon

 Our tale begins with season seven’s episode “The Six Million Dollar Mon,” in which Hermes Conrad, Grade 36 Bureaucrat (Extraordinaire), comes to the conclusion that the he should be fired, since his bureaucratic performance reviews are the main drain on his beloved Planet Express Shipping Company. After being replaced with robo-bureaucrat Mark 7-G (Mark Sevengy?), Hermes enjoys some delicious spicy curried goat and goes out for an evening stroll with his lovely wife LaBarbara. While on their walk Roberto, the knife-wielding maniac, long of our acquaintance, confronts and demands the human couple’s skin for his culinary delight! As Hermes cowers behind his wife in fear, suddenly a savior arrives! URL, the Robot Police Officer, reels Roberto in with his magnificent chest-harpoon! Watching the cops take Roberto to the electromagnetic chair, and lamenting his uselessness in a dangerous situation, Hermes makes a decision: he’ll get Bender to take him to one of the many shady, underground surgeons he knows, so he can become “less inferior to today’s modern machinery.” Enter: Yuri, Professional Shady-Deal-Maker.

Hermes’ first upgrade is to get a chest-harpoon, like the one URL has. With his new enhancement, he proves his worth to the crew by getting a box off of the top shelf, which is too high for Mark 7-G. With this fete he wins back his position with the company, but as soon as things get back to normal the Professor drops his false teeth down the Dispose-All. No big deal, right? Just get Scruffy to retrieve it. Unfortunately, Scruffy responds, that a sink, “t’ain’t a berler nor a terlet,” effectively refusing to retrieve the Professor’s teeth. Hermes resigns himself to grabbing his hand tools, when Bender steps in, saying, “Hand tools? Why don’t you just get an extendo-arm, like me?” Whereupon, he reaches across the room and pulls the Professor’s false teeth out of the drain—and immediately drops them back in. Hermes objects, saying that he doesn’t need any more upgrades—after all, he doesn’t want to end up a cold, emotionless robot, like Bender! Just then, Mark 7-G pipes up with, “Maybe I should get an extendo-arm,” and Hermes narrows his eyes in hatred. Re-enter: Yuri.

New extendo-arm acquired, the Professor’s teeth retrieved, and the old arm given to Zoidberg, who’s been asking for all of Hermes’s discarded parts, Hermes is, again, a hero to his coworkers. Later, as he lays in bed reading with his wife, LaBarbara questions his motives for his continual upgrades. He assures her that he’s done getting upgrades. However, his promise is short-lived. After shattering his glasses with his new super-strong mechanical arm, he rushes out to get a new Cylon eye. LaBarbara is now extremely worried, but Hermes soothes her, and they settle in for some “Marital Relations…”, at which point she finds that he’s had something else upgraded, too. She yells at him, “Some tings shouldn’t be Cylon-ed!” (which, in all honesty could be taken as the moral of the episode), and breaks off contact. What follows is a montage of Hermes encountering trivial difficulties in his daily life, and upgrading himself to overcome them. Rather than learning and working to improve himself, he continually replaces all of his parts, until he achieves a Full Body Upgrade. He still has a human brain, but that doesn’t matter: he’s changed. He doesn’t relate to his friends and family in the same way, and they’ve all noticed,especially Zoidberg.

All this time, however, Dr. John Zoidberg saved the trimmings from his friend’s constant upgrades, and has used them to make a meat-puppet, which he calls “Li’l Hermes.” Oh, and they’re a ventriloquist act. Anyway, after seeing their act, Hermes—or Mecha-Hermes, as he now prefers—is filled with loathing; loathing for the fact that his brain is still human, that is, until…! Re-re-enter…, no, not Yuri; because even Shady-Deals Yuri has his limits. He says that “No one in their right mind would do such a thing.” Enter: The Professor, who is, of course, more than happy—or perhaps, “maniacally gleeful”—to help. So, with Bender’s assistance (because everything robot-related, in the Futurama universe has to involve Bender, I guess), they set off to the Robot Cemetery to exhume the most recently buried robot they can find, and make off with its brain-chip. In their haste to have the deed done, they don’t bother to check the name of whose grave it is they’re desecrating. As you might have guessed, it’s Roberto—“3001-3012: Beloved Killer and Maniac.”

In the course of the operation, LaBarbara makes an impassioned plea, and it causes the Professor to stop and rethink his actions—because Hermes might have “litigious survivors.” Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, Zoidberg steps up and offers to perform this final operation, the one which will seemingly remove any traces of the Hermes he’s known and loved! Agreeing with Mecha-Hermes that claws will be far too clumsy for this delicate brain surgery, Zoidberg dons Li’l Hermes, and uses the puppet’s hands to do the deed. While all of this is underway, Zoidberg sings to everyone the explanation for why he would help his friend lose himself this way, all to the slightly heavy-handed tune of “Monster Mash.” Finally, the human brain removed, the robot brain implanted, and Zoidberg’s song coming to a close, the doctor reveals his final plan…By putting Hermes’s human brain into Li’l Hermes, Hermes is back! Of course, the whole operation having been a success, so is Roberto, but that’s somebody else’s problem.

We could spend the rest of our time discussing Zoidberg’s self-harmonization, but I’ll leave that for you to experiment with. Instead, let’s look closer at human bio-enhancement. To do this we’ll need to go back to the beginning. No, not the beginning of the episode, or even the Beginning of Futurama itself; No, we need to go back to the beginning of bio-enhancement—and specifically the field of cybernetics—as a whole.


“More Human Than Human” Is Our Motto

In 1960, at the outset of the Space Race, Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline wrote an article for the September issue of Aeronautics called “Cyborgs and Space.” In this article, they coined the term “cyborg” as a portmanteau of the phrase “Cybernetic Organism,” that is, a living creature with the ability to adapt its body to its environment. Clynes and Kline believed that if humans were ever going to go far out into space, they would have to become the kinds of creatures that could survive the vacuum of space as well as harsh, hostile planets. Now, for all its late-1990s Millennial fervor, Futurama has a deep undercurrent of love for the dream and promise (and fashion) of space exploration, as it was presented in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. All you need to do in order to see this is remember Fry’s wonder and joy at being on the actual moon and seeing the Apollo Lunar Lander. If this is the case, why, within Futurama’s 31st Century, is there such a deep distrust of anything approaching altered human physical features? Well, looking at it, we may find it has something to do with the fact that ever since we dreamed of augmenting humans, we’ve had nightmares that any alterations would thereby make us less human.

“The Six Million Dollar Mon,” episode seven of season seven, contains within it clear references to the history of science fiction, including one of the classic tales of human augmentation, and creating new life: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In going to the Robot Cemetery in the dead of night for spare parts, accidentally obtaining a murderer’s brain, and especially that bit with the skylight in the Professor’s laboratory, the entire third act of this episode serves as homage to Shelley’s book and its most memorable adaptations. In doing this, the Futurama crew puts conceptual pressure on what many of us have long believed: that created life is somehow “wrong” and that augmenting humans will make them somehow “less themselves.” Something about the biological is linked in our minds to the idea of the self—that is, it’s the warm squishy bits that make us who we are.

Think about it: If you build a person out of murderers, of course they’re going to be a murderer. If you replace every biological part of a human, then of course they won’t be their normal human selves, anymore; they’ll have become something entirely different, by definition. If your body isn’t yours, anymore, then how could you possibly be “you,” anymore? This should be all the more true when what’s being used to replace your bits is a different substance and material than you used to be. When that new “you” is metal rather than flesh, it seems that what it used to mean to be “you” is gone, and something new shall have appeared. This makes so much sense to us on a basic level that it seems silly to spell it out even this much, but what if we modify our scenario a little bit, and take another look?


The Ship of Planet Express

 What if, instead of feeling inferior to URL, Hermes had been injured and, in the course of his treatment, was given the choice between a brand new set of biological giblets (or a whole new body, as happened in the Bender’s Big Score storyline), or the chest-harpoon upgrade? Either way, we’re replacing what was lost with something new, right? So, why do many of us see the biological replacement as “more real?” Try this example: One day, on a routine delivery, the Planet Express Ship is damaged and repairs must be made. Specifically, the whole tail fin has to be replaced with a new, better fin. Once this is done, is it still the Planet Express ship? What if, next, we have to replace the dark matter engines with better engines? Is it still the Planet Express ship? Now, Leela’s chair is busted up, so we need to get her a new one. It also needs new bolts, so, while we’re at it, let’s just replace all of the bolts in the ship. Then the walls get dented, and the bunks are rusty, and the floors are buckled, and Scruffy’s mop… and so, over many years, the result is that no part of the Planet Express ship is “original,” oh, and we also have to get new, better paint, because the old paint is peeled away, plus, this all-new stuff needs painting. So, what do we think? Is this still the same Planet Express ship as it was in the first episode of Futurama? And, if so, then why do we think of a repaired and augmented human as “not being themselves?”

All of this may sound a little far-fetched, but remember the conventional wisdom that at the end of every seven-year cycle, all of the cells in your body have died and been replaced. Now, this isn’t quite true, as some cells don’t die easily, and some of those don’t regenerate when they do die, but as a useful shorthand, this gives something to think about. Ultimately, due to the metabolizing of elements and their distribution through your body it is ultimately more likely that you are currently made of astronomically many more new atoms than you are made of the atoms with which you were born. And really, that’s just math. Are you the same size as you were when you were born? Where do you think that extra mass came from? So, you are made of more and new atomic stuff over your lifetime; are you still you? These questions belong to what is generally known as “The Ship of Theseus” family of paradoxes, examples of which can be found pretty much everywhere.

The ultimate question the Ship of Theseus poses is one of identity, and specifically, “What makes a thing itself?” and, “At what point or through what means of alteration is a thing no longer itself?” Some schools of thought hold that it’s not what a thing is made of, but what it does that determines what it is. These philosophical groups are known as the behaviorists and the functionalists, and the latter believes that if a body or a mind goes through the “right kind” of process, then it can be termed as being the same as the original. That is, if I get a mechanical heart and what it does is keep blood pumping through my body, then it is my heart. Maybe it isn’t the heart I was born with, but it is my heart. And this seems to make sense to us, too. My new heart does the job my original cells were intending to do, but it does that job better than they could, and for longer; it works better, and I’m better because of it. But there seems to be something about that “Better” which throws us off, something about the line between therapeutic technology and voluntary augmentation.

When we are faced with the necessity of a repair, we are willing to accept that our new parts will be different than our old ones. In fact, we accept it so readily that we don’t even think about them as new parts. What Hermes does, however, is voluntary; he doesn’t “need” a chest-harpoon, but he wants one, and so he upgrades himself. And therein lies the crux of our dilemma: When we’re acutely aware of the process of upgrading, or repairing, or augmenting ourselves past a baseline of “Human,” we become uncomfortable, made to face the paradox of our connection to an idea of a permanent body that is in actuality constantly changing. Take for instance the question of steroidal injection. As a medical technology, there are times when we are more than happy to accept the use of steroids, as it will save a life, and allow people to live as “normal” human beings. Sufferers of asthma and certain types of infection literally need steroids to live. In other instances, however, we find ourselves abhorring the use of steroids, as it gives the user an “unfair advantage.” Baseball, football, the Olympics: all of these arena in which we look to the use of “enhancement technologies, and we draw a line and say, “If you achieved the peak of physical perfection through a process, that is through hard work and sweat and training, then your achievement is valid. But if you skipped a step, if you make yourself something more than human, then you’ve cheated.”

This sense of “having cheated” can even be seen in the case of humans who would otherwise be designated as “handicapped.” Aimee Mullins is a runner, model, and public speaker who has talked about how losing her legs has, in effect, given her super powers.[1] By having the ability to change her height, her speed, or her physical appearance at will, she contends that she has a distinct advantage over anyone who does not have that capability. To this end, we can come to see that something about the nature of our selves actually is contained within our physical form because we’re literally incapable of being some things, until we can change who and what we are. And here, in one person, what started as a therapeutic replacement—an assistive medical technology—has seamlessly turned into an upgrade, but we seem to be okay with this. Why? Perhaps there is something inherent in the struggle of overcoming the loss of a limb or the suffering of an illness that allows us to feel as if the patient has paid their dues. Maybe if Hermes had been stabbed by Roberto, we wouldn’t begrudge him a chest-harpoon.

But this presents us with a serious problem, because now we can alter ourselves by altering our bodies, where previously we said that our bodies were not the “real us.” Now, we must consider what it is that we’re changing when we swap out new and different pieces of ourselves. This line of thinking matches up with schools of thought such as physicalism, which says that when we make a fundamental change to our physical composition, then we have changed who we are.


Is Your Mind Just a Giant Brain?

Briefly, the doctrine of mind-body dualism (MBD) does pretty much what it says on the package, in that adherents believe that the mind and the body are two distinct types of stuff. How and why they interact (or whether they do at all) varies from interpretation to interpretation, but on what’s known as René Descartes’s “Interactionist” model, the mind is the real self, and the body is just there to do stuff. In this model, bodily events affect mental events, and vice versa, so what you think leads to what you do, and what you do can change how you think. This seems to make sense, until we begin to pick apart the questions of why we need two different types of thing, here. If the mind and the body affect each other, then how can the non-physical mind be the only real self? If it were the only real part of you, then nothing that happened to the physical shell should matter at all, because the mind? These questions and more very quickly cause us to question the validity of the mind as our “real selves,” leaving us trapped between the question of who we are, and the question of why we’re made the way we’re made. What can we do? Enter: Physicalism

The physicalist picture says that mind-states are brain-states. There’s none of this “two kinds of stuff” nonsense. It’s all physical stuff, and it all interacts, because it’s all physical. When the chemical pathways in your brain change, you change. When you think new thoughts, it’s because something in your world and your environment has changed. All that you are is the physical components of your body and the world around you. Pretty simple, right? Well, not quite that simple. Because if this is the case, then why should we feel that anything emotional would be changed by upgrading ourselves? As long as we’re pumping the same signals to the same receivers, and getting the same kinds of responses, everything we love should still be loved by us. So, why do the physicalists still believe that changing what we are will change who we are?

Let’s take a deeper look at the implications of physicalism for our dear Mr. Conrad.

According to this picture, with the alteration or loss of his biological components and systems, Hermes should begin to lose himself, until, with the removal of his brain, he would no longer be himself at all. But why should this be true? According to our previous discussion of the functionalist and behaviorist forms of physicalism, if Hermes’s new parts are performing the same job, in the same way as his old parts, just with a few new extras, then he shouldn’t be any different, at all. In order to understand this, we have to first know that I wasn’t completely honest with you, because some physicalists believe that the integrity of the components and the systems that make up a thing are what makes that thing. Thus, if we change the physical components of the thing we’re studying, then we change the thing. So, perhaps this picture is the right one, and the Futurama universe is a purely physicalist universe, after all.

On this view, what makes us who we are is precisely what we are. Our bits and pieces, cells, and chunks: these make us exactly the people we are, and so, if they change, then of course we will change. If our selves are dependent on our biology, then we are necessarily no longer ourselves when we remove that biology, regardless of whether the new technology does exactly the same job that the biology used to. And the argument seems to hold, even if it had been a new, diffferent set of human parts, rather than robot parts. In this particular physicalist view, it’s not just the stuff, but also the provenance of the individual parts that matter, and so changing the components changes us. As Hermes replaces part after part of his physical body, it becomes easier and easier for him to replace more parts, but he is still, in some sense, Hermes. He has the same motivations, the same thoughts, and the same memories, and so he is still Hermes, even if he’s changed. Right up until he swaps his brain, that is. And this makes perfect sense, because the brain is where the memories, thoughts, and motivations all reside. But, then…why aren’t more people with pacemakers cold and emotionless? Why is it that people with organs donated from serial killers don’t then turn into serial killers, themselves, despite what movies would have us believe? If this picture of physicalism is the right one, then why are so many people still themselves after transplants? Perhaps it’s not any one of these views that holds the whole key; maybe it’s a blending of three. This picture seems to suggest that while the bits and pieces of our physical body may change, and while that change may, in fact, change us, it is a combination of how, how quickly, and how many changes take place that will culminate in any eventual massive change in our selves.


Roswell That Ends Well

In the end, the versions of physicalism presented in the universe of Futurama seems to almost jibe with the intuitions we have about the nature of our own identity, and so, for the sake of Hermes Conrad, it seems like we should make the attempt to find some kind of understanding. When we see Hermes’s behaviour as he adds more and more new parts, we, as outside observers, have an urge to say “He’s not himself anymore,” but to Hermes, who has access to all of his reasoning and thought processes, his changes are merely who he is. It’s only when he’s shown himself from the outside via Zoidberg putting his physical brain back into his biological body, that he sees who and what he has allowed himself to become, and how that might be terrifying to those who love him. Perhaps it is this continuance of memory paired with the ability for empathy that makes us so susceptible to the twin traps of a permanent self and the terror of losing it.

Ultimately, everything we are is always in flux, with each new idea, each new experience, each new pound, and each new scar we become more and different than we ever have been, but as we take our time and integrate these experiences into ourselves, they are not so alien to us, nor to those who love us. It is only when we make drastic changes to what we are that those around us are able to question who we have become.

Oh, and one more thing: The “Ship of Theseus” story has a variant which I forgot to mention. In it, someone, perhaps a member of the original crew, comes along in another ship and picks up all the discarded, worn out pieces of Theseus’s ship, and uses them to build another, kind of decrepit ship. The stories don’t say what happens if and when Theseus finds out about this, or whether he gives chase to the surreptitious ship builder, but if he did, you can bet the latter party escapes with a cry of “Whooop-whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop!” on his mouth tendrils.



[1] “It’s not fair having 12 pairs of legs.” Mullins, Aimee. TED Talk 2009