cybernetics

All posts tagged cybernetics

[Direct link to Mp3]

Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:

TECHNOLOGY, DISABILITY, AND HUMAN AUGMENTATION

‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’

It was kind of an extemporaneous riff on my piece “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” and it gave me the opportunity to namedrop Ashley Shew, Natalie Kane, and Rose Eveleth.

The outline looked a little like this:

  • Foucault and Normalization
    • Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
      • Starts with Medical tech but applies Everywhere; Facebook, Phones, Etc.
  • Zoltan Istvan: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks
  • All Lead To: Ashley Shew’s “Up-Standing Norms
    • Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
      • See the story Shew tells about her engineering student, as related in the AFWTA Essay
    • Inspiration Porn: What is cast by others as “Triumphing” over “Adversity” is simply adapting to new realities.
      • Placing the burden on the disabled to be an “inspiration” is dehumanizing;
      • means those who struggle “have no excuse;”
      • creates conditions for a “who’s got it worse” competition
  • John Locke‘s Empiricism: Primary and Secondary Qualities
    • Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
      • Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
        • Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
          • “Fixing” people to make them “normal, again”
  • Natalie Kane‘s “Means Well Technology
    • Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
      • The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
        • William Gibson’s quote “The street finds its own uses for things.”
  • Against Locke: Embrace Phenomenological Ethics and Epistemology (Feminist Epistemology and Ethics)
    • Lived Experience and embodiment as crucial
    • The interplay of Self and and Society
  • Ship of Theseus: Identity, mind, extensions, and augmentations change how we think of ourselves and how society thinks of us
    • See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay

The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.

Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”

Enjoy.


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There’s increasing reportage about IBM using Watson to correlate medical data. We’ve talked before about the potential hazards of this:

Do you know someone actually had the temerity to ask [something like] “What Does Google Having Access to Medical Records Mean For Patient Privacy?” [Here] Like…what the fuck do you think it means? Nothing good, you idiot!

Disclosures and knowledges can still make certain populations intensely vulnerable to both predation and to social pressures and judgements, and until that isn’t the case, anymore, we need to be very careful about the work we do to try to bring those patients’ records into a sphere where they’ll be accessed and scrutinized by people who don’t have to take an oath to hold that information in confidence. ‘

We are more and more often at the intersection of our biological humanity and our technological augmentation, and the integration of our mediated outboard memories only further complicates the matter. As it stands, we don’t quite yet know how to deal with the question posed by Motherboard, some time ago (“Is Harm to a Prosthetic Limb Property Damage or Personal Injury?”), but as we build on implantable technologies, advanced prostheses, and offloaded memories and augmented capacities we’re going to have to start blurring the line between our bodies, our minds, and our concept of our selves. That is, we’ll have to start intentionally blurring it, because the vast majority of us already blur it, without consciously realising that we do. At least, those without prostheses don’t realise it.

Dr Ashley Shew, out of Virginia Tech,  works at the intersection of philosophy, tech, and disability. I first encountered her work, at the 2016 IEEE Ethics Conference in Vancouver, where she presented her paper “Up-Standing, Norms, Technology, and Disability,” a discussion of how ableism, expectations, and language use marginalise disabled bodies. Dr Shew is, herself, disabled, having had her left leg removed due to cancer, and she gave her talk not on the raised dias, but at floor-level, directly in front of the projector. Her reason? “I don’t walk up stairs without hand rails, or stand on raised platforms without guards.”

Dr Shew notes that users of wheelchairs consider those to be fairly integral extensions and interventions. Wheelchair users, she notes, consider their chairs to be a part of them, and the kinds of lawsuits engaged when, for instance, airlines damage their chairs, which happens a great deal.  While we tend to think of the advents of technology allowing for the seamless integration of our technology and bodies, the fact is that well-designed mechanical prostheses, today, are capable becoming integrated into the personal morphic sphere of a person, the longer they use it. And this can extended sensing can be transferred from one device to another. Shew mentions a friend of hers:

She’s an amputee who no longer uses a prosthetic leg, but she uses forearm crutches and a wheelchair. (She has a hemipelvectomy, so prosthetics are a real pain for her to get a good fit and there aren’t a lot of options.) She talks about how people have these different perceptions of devices. When she uses her chair people treat her differently than when she uses her crutches, but the determination of which she uses has more to do with the activities she expects for the day, rather than her physical wellbeing.

But people tend to think she’s recovering from something when she moves from chair to sticks.

She has been an [amputee] for 18 years.

She has/is as recovered as she can get.

In her talk at IEEE, Shew discussed the fact that a large number of paraplegics and other wheelchair users do not want exoskeletons, and those fancy stair-climbing wheelchairs aren’t covered by health insurance. They’re classed as vehicles. She said that when she brought this up in the class she taught, one of the engineers left the room looking visibly distressed. He came back later and said that he’d gone home to talk to his brother with spina bifida, who was the whole reason he was working on exoskeletons. He asked his brother, “Do you even want this?” And the brother said, basically, “It’s cool that you’re into it but… No.” So, Shew asks, why are these technologies being developed? Transhumanists and the military. Framing this discussion as “helping our vets” makes it a noble cause, without drawing too much attention to the fact that they’ll be using them on the battlefield as well.

All of this comes back down and around to the idea of biases ingrained into social institutions. Our expectations of what a “normal functioning body” is gets imposed from the collective society, as a whole, a placed as restrictions and demands on the bodies of those whom we deem to be “malfunctioning.” As Shew says, “There’s such a pressure to get the prosthesis as if that solves all the problems of maintenance and body and infrastructure. And the pressure is for very expensive tech at that.”

So we are going to have to accept—in a rare instance where Robert Nozick is proven right about how property and personhood relate—that the answer is “You are damaging both property and person, because this person’s property is their person.” But this is true for reasons Nozick probably would not think to consider, and those same reasons put us on weirdly tricky grounds. There’s a lot, in Nozick, of the notion of property as equivalent to life and liberty, in the pursuance of rights, but those ideas don’t play out, here, in the same way as they do in conservative and libertarian ideologies.  Where those views would say that the pursuit of property is intimately tied to our worth as persons, in the realm of prosthetics our property is literally simultaneously our bodies, and if we don’t make that distinction, then, as Kirsten notes, we can fall into “money is speech” territory, very quickly, and we do not want that.

Because our goal is to be looking at quality of life, here—talking about the thing that allows a person to feel however they define “comfortable,” in the world. That is, the thing(s) that lets a person intersect with the world in the ways that they desire. And so, in damaging the property, you damage the person. This is all the more true if that person is entirely made of what we are used to thinking of as property.

And all of this is before we think about the fact implantable and bone-bonded tech will need maintenance. It will wear down and glitch out, and you will need to be able to access it, when it does.  This means that the range of ability for those with implantables? Sometimes it’s less than that of folks with more “traditional” prostheses. But because they’re inside, or more easily made to look like the “original” limb,  we observers are so much more likely to forget that there are crucial differences at play in the ownership and operation of these bodies.

There’s long been a fear that, the closer we get to being able to easily and cheaply modify humans, we’ll be more likely to think of humanity as “perfectable.” That the myth of progress—some idealized endpoint—will be so seductive as to become completely irresistible. We’ve seen this before, in the eugenics movement, and it’s reared its head in the transhumanist and H+ communities of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well. But there is the possibility that instead of demanding that there be some kind of universally-applicable “baseline,” we intently focused, instead, on recognizing the fact that just as different humans have different biochemical and metabolic needs, process, capabilities, preferences, and desires, different beings and entities which might be considered persons are drastically different than we, but no less persons?

Because human beings are different. Is there a general framework, a loosely-defined line around which we draw a conglomeration of traits, within which lives all that we mark out as “human”—a kind of species-wide butter zone? Of course. That’s what makes us a fucking species. But the kind of essentialist language and thinking towards which we tend, after that, is reductionist and dangerous. Our language choices matter, because connotative weight alters what people think and in what context, and, again, we have a habit of moving rapidly from talking about a generalized framework of humanness to talking about “The Right Kind Of Bodies,” and the “Right Kind Of Lifestyle.”

And so, again, again, again, we must address problems such as normalized expectations of “health” and “Ability.” Trying to give everyone access to what they might consider their “best” selves is a brilliant goal, sure, whatever, but by even forwarding the project, we run the risk of colouring an expectation of both what that “best” is and what we think it “Ought To” look like.

Some people need more protein, some people need less choline, some people need higher levels of phosphates, some people have echolocation, some can live to be 125, and every human population has different intestinal bacterial colonies from every other. When we combine all these variables, we will not necessarily find that each and every human being has the same molecular and atomic distribution in the same PPM/B ranges, nor will we necessarily find that our mixing and matching will ensure that everyone gets to be the best combination of everything. It would be fantastic if we could, but everything we’ve ever learned about our species says that “healthy human” is a constantly shifting target, and not a static one.

We are still at a place where the general public reacts with visceral aversion to technological advances and especially anything like an immediated technologically-augmented humanity, and this is at least in part because we still skirt the line of eugenics language, to this day. Because we talk about naturally occurring bio-physiological Facts as though they were in any way indicative of value, without our input. Because we’re still terrible at ethics, continually screwing up at 100mph, then looking back and going, “Oh. Should’ve factored that in. Oops.”

But let’s be clear, here: I am not a doctor. I’m not a physiologist or a molecular biologist. I could be wrong about how all of these things come together in the human body, and maybe there will be something more than a baseline, some set of all species-wide factors which, in the right configuration, say “Healthy Human.” But what I am is someone with a fairly detailed understanding of how language and perception affect people’s acceptance of possibilities, their reaction to new (or hauntingly-familiar-but-repackaged) ideas, and their long-term societal expectations and valuations of normalcy.

And so I’m not saying that we shouldn’t augment humanity, via either mediated or immediated means. I’m not saying that IBM’s Watson and Google’s DeepMind shouldn’t be tasked with the searching patient records and correlating data. But I’m also not saying that either of these is an unequivocal good. I’m saying that it’s actually shocking how much correlative capability is indicated by the achievements of both IBM and Google. I’m saying that we need to change the way we talk about and think about what it is we’re doing. We need to ask ourselves questions about informed patient consent, and the notions of opting into the use of data; about the assumptions we’re making in regards to the nature of what makes us humans, and the dangers of rampant, unconscious scientistic speciesism. Then, we can start to ask new questions about how to use these new tools we’ve developed.

With this new perspective, we can begin to imagine what would happen if we took Watson and DeepDream’s ability to put data into context—to turn around, in seconds, millions upon millions (billions? Trillions?) of permutations and combinations. And then we can ask them to work on tailoring genome-specific health solutions and individualized dietary plans. What if we asked these systems to catalogue literally everything we currently knew about every kind of disease presentation, in every ethnic and regional population, and the differentials for various types of people with different histories, risk factors, current statuses? We already have nanite delivery systems, so what if we used Google and IBM’s increasingly ridiculous complexity to figure out how to have those nanobots deliver a payload of perfectly-crafted medical remedies?

But this is fraught territory. If we step wrong, here, we are not simply going to miss an opportunity to develop new cures and devise interesting gadgets. No; to go astray, on this path, is to begin to see categories of people that “shouldn’t” be “allowed” to reproduce, or “to suffer.” A misapprehension of what we’re about, and why, is far fewer steps away from forced sterilization and medical murder than any of us would like to countenance. And so we need to move very carefully, indeed, always being aware of our biases, and remembering to ask those affected by our decisions what they need and what it’s like to be them. And remembering, when they provide us with their input, to believe them.

Here’s the direct link to my paper ‘The Metaphysical Cyborg‘ from Laval Virtual 2013. Here’s the abstract:

“In this brief essay, we discuss the nature of the kinds of conceptual changes which will be necessary to bridge the divide between humanity and machine intelligences. From cultural shifts to biotechnological integration, the project of accepting robotic agents into our lives has not been an easy one, and more changes will be required before the majority of human societies are willing and able to allow for the reality of truly robust machine intelligences operating within our daily lives. Here we discuss a number of the questions, hurdles, challenges, and potential pitfalls to this project, including examples from popular media which will allow us to better grasp the effects of these concepts in the general populace.”

The link will only work from this page or the CV page, so if you find yourself inclined to spread this around, use this link. Hope you enjoy it.

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.

 

FOOTNOTES

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

I’m working on having conversations with some developmental and family psychologists about the kinds of things you would expect I’d be talking to them–and then telling you–about. I’m also working with several other people to organize three or four different A/V conversations about various shows and films that’ve come out, this year.

Obviously, then, we’re in the middle of some detailed discussions which might take a little while, so until they take a firmer shape, let’s talk about something else near and dear to our hearts: Cybernetic Augmentations!

It’s actually been a pretty great few months for our advancements in wearable prostheses/augmentations, so I’m just going to list a few of my favourites and most recent ones, below:


 

  • ‘Ocumetics Bionic Lens Could Give You Vision 3x Better than 20/20’

    ‘”There’s a lot of excitement about the Bionic Lens from very experienced surgeons who perhaps had some cynicism about this because they’ve seen things not work in the past. They think that this might actually work and they’re eager enough that they all wish to be on the medical advisory board to help him on his journey,” DeLuise says.
    ‘”I think this device is going to bring us closer to the holy grail of excellent vision at all ranges — distant, intermediate and near.”
    ‘Pending clinical trials on animals and then blind human eyes, the Bionic Lens could be available in Canada and elsewhere in about two years, depending on regulatory processes in various countries, Webb says.’

 

  • 3D-Printed Titanium Jaw Lets Turtle Eat Again
    ‘Once the bionic turtle has made a full recovery, the team plans to release it back into the ocean to live happily once again. It’s hoped that this pioneering surgery will be able to help more injured sea turtles in the future and improve their chances of survival.’

 

  • Amputees Control Bionic Legs with Their Thoughts” (Video At Link)
    ‘As soon as I put my foot on, it took me about 10 minutes to get control of it. I could stand up and just walk away. Come back, sit down, use my muscles to move my foot in the position I wanted to use it. It was, like you couldn’t believe the feeling when you were moving your ankle. It was really strange. I couldn’t explain it. It was like, I was moving it with my muscles, there was nobody else doing it, the foot was not doing it, I was doing it, so it was really strange and overwhelming,” Olafsson remembered.’

 

What we’re looking at is a lot of potentially wonderful biomechanical interventions coming to fruition, right now and in the next few months and years. On top of that, for the past couple of weeks, NPR’s been a providing a great deal of coverage on autonomous created/generated machine intelligences and their applications for daily life. As we can see in this piece about Ellie, the interactive therapeutic system used to diagnose PTS, and depression, the level of sophistication in machine intelligences–not to mention the pace of their development–is increasing, and so, therefore, is the pressure to accept these developments as “normal.”

Now you well know (and others won’t hesitate to tell you) that the existences of these therapies, prostheses, augmentations, and systems are not unequivocal benefits, applicable to any and all experiential modes, but as the bullet list above shows, if we keep our minds about us, then we can apply them with discernment. And those applications can damn sure do many of us a lot of good.

[EDIT: While I was working on this post, The Washington Post published this piece:

Bolding mine and more information and a video at the link. So there’s that.]

I sat down with Klint Finley of Mindful Cyborgs to talk about many, many things:

…pop culture portrayals of human enhancement and artificial intelligence and why we need to craft more nuanced narratives to explore these topics…

Tune in next week to hear Damien talk about how AI and transhumanism intersects with magic and the occult.
Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Mindful Cyborgs: A Positive Vision of Transhumanism and AI with Damien Williams

This was a really great conversation, & I do so hope you enjoy it.

(Originally posted on Patreon, on November 2, 2014)

When you take a long look at the structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it becomes somewhat apparent that Arthur C. Clarke understood (though possibly without knowing that he did) that 1: humans have been cyborgs since fire, pointy sticks, & sharp rocks; and 2: the process of cybernetic enhancement has only ever been an outgrowth of the kind of symbiosis developed via natural selection.

First demonstrated via the influence of the Monolith on the tribe of Australopithecus and then more explicitly stated in the merger of Commander Dave Bowman and HAL into HALMAN, the opening fourth of Clarke’s quadrology is the first step along a road toward something that would later come to be seen as fundamental to the then-nascent study of cybernetic organisms. Though the term “cyborg” was coined in the 50’s and 60’s, a fuller investigation of the implications of cyborgs would take another 40 years to come to light. The perspective of “Cyborg Anthropology” has taken root through the works of thinkers like Donna Haraway, Amber Case, Klint Finley, and Tim Maly, and it has provided insights at an intersection which, in hindsight, we think ought to have been—but most certainly was not previously—obvious.

In the explicit connection of the cyborg with the anthropocene era, we force ourselves to acknowledge that every human endeavour has been an outgrowth of the dialectic, pattern-centred process of mediation and immediation—of creating new tools to do new (or old) work, and then integrating those tools more and more fully within our expectation of how a “normal” human looks and behaves. Normal humans use tools, at all. Normal humans communicate via standardized language. Normal humans write. Normal humans have a cell phone, a Facebook, a web footprint centred around their purchasing history and social interactions and shared location data; and the implication of this mode of thinking (aside from the obvious judgments made about any “abnormal” human) is that once these become “normal,” they will then have always been normal. It’s just that we’re somehow only just now coming to realize it.

The myth of progress causes humans to seek this determinative Change-Toward, where the idea of “the process of becoming” acts as the modifier of an unspoken, possibly unknown Object State. We are, to steal a Sneaker Pimps title, “Becoming X.” But this teleological view is inconsistent with what we know of nature and the process of adaptation [insert something here about the aforementioned inherently Abrahamic roots of Transhumanist thought and the uninvestigated opposition of adaptation to this determinism]. The question “What are we becoming?” is alluring, but restrictive. We Are Becoming. Life is that process of transmutation from one state to the next. Paradoxically, self-conscious life is so enmeshed in that moment of present-mindedness that we simultaneously cannot a) maintain an awareness of the process of our becoming—that is, of ourselves as anything other than we are and “always have been”—and b) help BUT look to the future of what we desire to become.

We’re consumed with the idea of what we might someday come to be, or what we “will” be. Imagine if, instead, we became aware of the process of ever-present change and self-creation, and modified our future-looking to act as a recognition of our adaptability. Then we’d see that the Monolith didn’t do anything but place our hand and that sharp piece of bone in just the juxtaposition we needed, in order to understand that we were capable of understanding. If the monolith makers in this tale are desirous of anything, it is of the flourishing of adaptable, changeable life—not of a particular Kind of that life, but merely of its existence and expression, throughout the cosmos. In this way, one set of adaptable, self-reflective consciousness goes on to provide the means for the arising of another, and on and on. The Monoliths are tools to create tools which will use tools to create tools to use tools to create tools… But it is equally true that those tool-creating tools are, in the words of Kant, ends in themselves. In fact, they necessarily must be. Their only goal is to flourish and propagate and create the kind of reality in which more of the same can find purchase. They are, thus, to be valued for what they are, because what they are IS what they do.

But this isn’t the end. Haraway said she’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess, and I once retorted “It Can Always Be Both.” Both cyborg nature and apotheosis are about the self-directed, rising spiral of adaptation. In order for that to be true, we have to recognise that nature itself isn’t a passive state of being, but an ever-evolving, constant becoming. Nature adapts so constantly, so thoroughly that it looks like no change has taken place, until—thousands of years later—the differentiation is so vast that it boggles the mind. But now? Now the pace of evolution is so accelerated (or perhaps our ways of looking have simply become able to parse more, more usefully) that we may be able to see it in action. We can tell that there is work being done, in nature, to “refine” itself, all the time, and we can, finally, seek to model ourselves after it.

We may get to the point where the manipulation of the hearts of stars or the molecular composition of gas giants is as easy for us to contemplate and execute as the building of an engine. We may reach a stage where we understand the fabric of space-time as intimately as our own skin, flesh, and bones. We may yet understand how a word or a gesture made at the right time or place can cause ripples and actions in faraway places in what seems like an instant. Mechanisms once thought to be the purview fantasy are coming to us, again, through the applications of science, but this is not to say that technology accomplished what magic could not. Magic is a lens through which to see and interact with the world. It is a set of concepts and symbols which usefulness are determined by their meaning and vice versa. For many adherents, the lens is used for as long as it works, no more and no less, and when it stops working, the next lens is brought to bear. Systematically, technological viewpoints are magic we like to explain.

Whether wearing bear shirts and calf’s blood or lab coats and implanted magnets, the constant becoming of reflexive adaptation is the only thing we’ve ever been—the only thing anything has ever been. This is, in a real sense, the best thing we can ever hope to be. But if the human species has any “final form,” maybe one day someone will look at us and realise that, my god, we’re full of stars.