The Ghost in the Machine
February 24, 2011 § 9 Comments
“….Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold…”
Coined by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe Rene Descartes‘ concept of mind-body dualism, the phrase “The ghost in the machine” was originally intended as a metaphor. These days it takes on a more literal meaning.
Author/inventor Raymond Kurzweil, for instance, postulates that by 2045 we will have incorporated our technology into our very selves. He predicts this will be out of necessity, to keep up with the super-intelligent machines we ourselves have created.
Not just that, but he suspects that within the next thirty years we will witness the uploading of the human consciousness or brain to computer systems, an ambition upon which many are working to make reality as I write.
Coming from just anyone, these predictions would seem outlandish. But Kurzweil is a respected and accomplished inventor, holding 19 honorary doctorates, honored by American presidents for his contributions to the scientific community. Bill Gates has called him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.”
“There’s an intellectual gag reflex that kicks in anytime you try to swallow an idea that involves super-intelligent immortal cyborgs, but suppress it if you can, because while the Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.”
According to Kurzweil, a technological singularity –– known more popularly as “The Singularity” — will occur in the foreseeable future, wherein rapidly accelerating knowledge about nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, computer science, biotechnology and genetics will combine to create the perfect storm wherein a paradigm shift will occur so profound that it will change “the world as we know it” in record time. After all, technology is developing exponentially, each breakthrough generating a new constellation of breakthroughs.
There are already transhumanist clubs and conventions that attract thousands.
Transhumanism is a cultural/intellectual movement advocating human augmentation through technology. But we’re not just talking prosthetic arms here, we’re talking goals of human immortality through machines — scientists working quite seriously towards transferring human consciousness from its corporeal form into the body of a robot.
If this sounds like science fiction, keep in mind that science fiction has predicted nearly every technological advancement we now perceive as commonplace, from space travel to submarines.
In 1998, a British scientist and professor of cybernetics, Kevin Warwick, became the first human cyborg. Warwick had a small radio transmitter chip implanted under his skin, which could affect lights turning on and off, doors opening and closing, etc. (Hasn’t he ever heard of “clap on, clap off?”)
Encouraged by this success, in 2002 Warwick had a neural interface implanted in his nervous system. That too was successful. Later, a simpler array was implanted into Warwick’s wife. The aim was to create a form of telepathy or empathy using the Internet to communicate the signal from afar. Though significant telepathy was not achieved, some signals were exchanged, resulting in the first purely electronic communication between the nervous systems of two humans.
The transhumanist trend has been showing up more and more in pop culture as well…
It’s not a question of if our humanity will become augmented (and simultaneously, paradoxically, perhaps diminished) by technology, but when and how.
The potential for nightmare scenarios — the Darwinian error of creating entities more powerful than oneself with minds of their own — remains a realistic concern, but not a momentum-stopper, apparently. And perhaps reasonably so: if we let fear and paranoia rule our imaginations, after all, we repress our potential. On the other hand, brazen utopianism with hubristic disregard for basic intuitive reservation has gotten more than a few people in trouble. I suppose the phrase “proceed with caution” would be particularly meaningful here.
“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” says Raymond Kurzweil. “That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”
A good argument. But many would argue that becoming machinelike is the exact opposite of what it means to be human. Without the prospect of death to motivate living each day to the fullest, without imperfection to give poignancy, what will we become? And what if we are the spiritual equivalent of caterpillars designing ways to remain caterpillars indefinitely, unwittingly thwarting our destiny as butterflies?