Thanks, but I can see the view just fine from here.

Major or Master Chief? The Singularity vs. Transhumanism

In my first post, I declared that three months ago I had never heard of transhumanism.  I wrote that I had never heard of Ray Kurzweil or the Singularity or thought much about our world’s advancement in genetic engineering or robotics or nanotechnology.  When I explained the Singularity to my Communication professor in class, he admitted to me that he had trouble understanding the concept I was trying to illustrate.  He also admitted to never having heard of the phrase “Singularity” being used outside of physics.  I couldn’t seem to find one single person who had heard about a technological Singularity.  But even if the terminology is unfamiliar to the general public, the concepts are not.

Imagine a world where life is experienced almost entirely online; where brain augmentation, or cyberization, is common practice.  Prosthetic bodies, that is, bodies consisting mostly of synthetic parts, are a popular trend and can be replaced or exchanged when damaged.  Active camouflage enables a person to blend in with their surrounding environment, making them nearly invisible to the naked eye.  Unaltered, biological humanity is only a shadow of what it once was.

Such is the world of Shirow Masamune’s award-winning Ghost in the Shell.  Originally Japanese manga and later anime, it served as inspiration for the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 film, The Matrix.

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Referred to simply as “the Major,” Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi is a member of Tokyo’s covert police force, Section 9.  Set in Japan in 2029, many of Tokyo’s citizens are nearly completely robotic, with only a “shell” of humanity remaining.  The Major herself has only a brain and section of spinal chord that aren’t mechanized.  The transition from human to machine is a defining characteristic of the Singularity, and is hailed by those who work towards it as evolutionary progress.

According to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), the Singularity is explained simply as “the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence.”  While the institute goes on to explain that there are many ways besides AI that this could be achieved (such as “direct brain-computer interfaces, biological augmentation of the brain, [and] genetic engineering”), the quest for smarter-than-human intelligence will create an environment that may be entirely unfamiliar to our current model of the world where humans are the most intelligent beings.

Scientists working to achieve the goal of the Singularity argue that we will inevitably evolve through (or with) our computers, and that future humans will gradually replace their biological bodies with machine parts that perform more efficiently and break down less.  Eventually, the human form will be unnecessary, and future humans will be able to change their form at will or even relinquish it all together.  The destiny of humans, according to the Singularity, is to expand our intelligence to such an extent that it eventually embodies the universe.  It is universally acknowledged by Singularitarians that our potential as intelligent creatures is impossible to achieve in the bodies we inhabit now.

So now that I’ve given a brief rundown of what the Singularity is, what about transhumanism?  Like I said, until three months ago, I had never even heard of it, or at least, I didn’t think I had.

But I HAD heard of the XBox, and in 2001, Microsoft released a new game that had everyone talking: Halo.

Ahh, Halo.  What is it about a tech-heavy first-person shooter that has us so enthralled?  Maybe it’s the same sort of stuff that inspires us to wear boot-length black trench coats and Morpheus sunglasses.

Now, I’m not bringing up the Halo series because of its graphics, game play,  spiffy weapons, or LAN party capabilities.  I mention Halo because of how the main characters, the Spartan soldiers, are created.  In the original Halo, Master Chief John-117 isn’t enhanced by machinery like Major Kusanagi.

Instead, he and subsequent Spartan soldiers are augmented biologically, given a protein complex that increases muscular growth and recovery, a thyroid implant to boost growth of both muscular and skeletal tissues, a boosted blood vessel flow around the soldiers’ retinas, enhancing vision, neural augmentation which increased reflexes, cognitive abilties, creativity, memory and intelligence, and grafting onto skeletal structures to make bones virtually unbreakable.

It’s interesting to me that all of these biological changes were made, since I associate Halo characters with a reflective visor and a full-body suit.  True, the suit does add additional abilities, but underneath, the human body itself has been improved.

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In the 2010 book,  More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, the author, Ramez Naam says of gene therapy, “While the goal of gene therapy researchers is to cure disease, gene therapy could also be used to boost human athletic performance. In many cases, the same research that is focused on saving lives has also shown that it can enhance the abilities of animals, with the suggestion that it could enhance men and women as well.”

Singularitarians and transhumanists alike believe that we as humans – in our current form – are not achieving our full potential.  While the Singularity camp argues that our advancement in technology will be more through machinery and the transhumanism camp argues that it’s through bioengineering that we will improve and evolve, both agree that to fight technology is futile and evolution is inevitable.

Whether or not these technologies seem real, they are being pursued with vigor (however quietly), and soon we will experience them as more than just books or movies or video games.

So, if resistance really is futile, as the Borg would say, the only question left I have for my readers is this:

Are you a Major or a Master Chief?

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4 responses

  1. Annie

    Fascinating to think about, really. It’s definitely something that our society has toyed with for years, decades even. Captain America, I, Robot, Halo, like you mentioned, and more have all played with at least one of those two ideas. It’s very interesting. But, at the same time, I’m somewhat afraid of what the next phase of evolution will bring. I remember once a teacher I had in college brought up a similar idea. He suggested that someday in place of credit cards, we’d have bar codes on our arms, or something like that. Not sure how likely that is, but were it to happen, consider what a mugging would entail…. But on the opposite side, there are definitely benefits as well. Being able to replace damaged parts more easily, for one. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

    October 3, 2011 at 10:56 pm

  2. TCT

    Hrm, I wonder if the mugging situation would at first involve actual extraction of the chips and then evolve into hacking from a remote location? I’m not sure which one sounds worse. But, you’re right, we do have some benefits from our technology. Still, I won’t get a data plan for my phone because I function best in face-to-face conversation, and I’d plug in for sure if I had the internet at my fingertips. How cranky I get when all of my communication is remote like that! Do you think having a smart phone is something you can live without, or is it part of your consciousness?

    October 4, 2011 at 7:37 pm

  3. This is a very interesting subject. It seems with all the first-person shooter games, and role-playing games like World of Warcraft, I wonder how close we are to creating actual virtual reality games! It would be so cool to actually enter the game mentally and think that you are living it! I can’t wait for that time. I’m sure there are pro’s and con’s to it but if there was a way to create it, I’m all for it. This article also reminds me of iRobot as well as even Star Wars when they replace Luke’s hand with an even better, mechanical one!

    October 6, 2011 at 3:38 pm

  4. TCT

    That has me wondering, Mike, if you would replace your whole body with a mechanical one? Some scientists are working towards that goal – are you on the enhancement bandwagon?

    October 7, 2011 at 9:07 pm

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