Jun 19 2012

Prometheus: Cautionary Tale About Seeking Immortality?


Ridley Scott’s prequel set in the Alien universe, the detailed and evocative Prometheus, delivers a science fiction narrative rife with mythological and philosophical implications beyond the standard big budget sci-fi fare, a story that presents fringe speculations about the influence of alien contact with the origins of the human species and offers serious questions about the prospective future of humanity and technology. Upon considering the many mythic references in the film, the transhumanist in me began to wonder: is technology becoming a modern mythic force, a deus ex machina that we presume we can rely on for future salvation? Is it here that we find the greater cautionary message of Prometheus?

Peter Weyland, in the 2023 TED talk that was released as a viral video before the launch of the film, sets up this line of thinking when he tells us, “At this moment in our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: we are the gods now.” This brazen statement causes a mild uproar in the crowd: is Weyland a foolish heretic? Or a prophetic visionary? Perhaps both.

The first scene where Weyland appears in Prometheus throws his motives into question. If Weyland has honest intentions, why does he hide the fact that he’s part of the expedition? The act of creating life in sentient robots has left Weyland with delusions of grandeur. Like King Gilgamesh and many others before him, Weylan plans to supplicate the alien “gods”, or Engineers, and pry from them the secret of immortal life. Weyland is withered and fragile, aged far beyond the normal capacities of the human body, to the extent that he must rely on cryosleep to survive, and a mechanical exoskeleton to augment his atrophied body. He has cheated death by artificial means, but to what end? His quality of life in this unnatural state does not seem very appealing.

“A king has his reign. He dies. It’s the natural order of things.” Weyland’s daughter, Meredith Vickers, offers as advice, trying to convince her father to abandon this quest. Weyland stubbornly disagrees, choosing to continue forward with his egotistical fantasy of immortal life. His philosophy may be more or less defined as a Transhumanist: Weyland seeks to gain immortal life (or an approximation) by using technology to extend his life as long as possible, with the hopes that the Engineers have even greater technology that could make him immortal, as the gods. Though, at face value, the purpose of the Prometheus mission is to make contact with humanity’s creators for the edification of our species, it becomes clear that the real primary purpose is for the aged industrialist to survive.

This is Weyland’s gamble, betting the lives of the entire crew of the Prometheus, including his daughter and android son, on the chance that he might win big. Which begs the question, if you could extend the length of your life at the price of others, is that morally acceptable — if you feel that you have something greater to give to the world than others might have?

Certainly Weyland feels that his life is more valuable than the lives of others. This is an important question for Transhumanists to consider, especially in the context of global economics; when the time comes that technologies for extreme life extension do exist, who will benefit from them? Wealthy individuals in the first world, at the expense of laborers assembling these technologies in the third world? What responsibility is there to provide access to technological innovation for all, when there are limited resources available? These issues will emerge as more pressing concerns in the 21st century.

Weyland’s less attractive personality traits are also on display in his daughter, Meredith Vickers. Many viewers who had seen Alien were likely questioning Vickers’ humanity up until the discussion with the pilot Janek when he asks her point blank if she is an android, a question to which the audience doesn’t really get a definitive answer. If she is human, she seems to have acquired some of the more inhuman qualities of the technology that she and her father have ensconced themselves in. Vickers’ dependence on technology, much like her father, is evident in her life pod, designed to cheat death and extend her life as long as possible by surrounding her with technological protections.

If anyone embodies the spirit of Prometheus the titan, it is “the closest thing Weyland has to a son,” the android David. Like Prometheus, David is an outsider to human culture but he wants to be helpful. Some of the most mundane yet fascinating scenes with David are towards the beginning of the story when the android watches old Technicolor movies of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and the audience is left to wonder about what implications there might be in the future… if intelligent machines look to humanity as role models, or god figures.

It is David who steals the “black goo” from the alien ship and gives it to the human scientists, though his intentions are somewhat difficult to discern. David is ostensibly giving the humans what they want, to have a divine transformative experience. The large human head sculpture in the room offers the implication that humans were genetically engineered using this substance. What the android does not anticipate is that the black goo is reactive to human emotion, as Elizabeth Shaw points out when the landing party is examining the alien murals. Very psychedelic!

Is the black goo a bioweapon or a lifegiving substance? Perhaps it’s both. The effect of exposure seems to accentuate a person’s existing traits. Before entering the alien sanctuary Shaw reminds the geologist Fiefield that they are on a peaceful mission of scientific discovery, but he will not give up his big metal gun or his aggressive attitude. One wonders if perhaps the crew of Prometheus had taken an opportunity to relax, take a deep breath and chant an Om or two, if their pilgrimage would have turned out differently. But we see a negative reaction/symbiosis, most pronounced in the angry geologist Fiefield who devolves into a rampaging zombie after being exposed to the goo. Even something as innocuous as meal worms can become extreme organisms when exposed to the black goo. The shiny green goo that David pulls out of the vials is a different substance. This might be the DNA of the Engineers race, that the “Gardener” released in the opening scene when he sacrifices himself to seed life on the planet. The black goo mutagenic catalyst plus the green DNA base is the volatile chemical mixture that can be used as a bioweapon.

Technology as a whole is also a tabula rosa of the human psyche; a gun without a negative human intention isn’t able to harm anyone. Surveillance technology isn’t inherently evil, but it can be used for evil purposes. Now, suppose you are part of the race of advanced aliens called the Engineers, in control of advanced technologies. What better form of weapon could there be than a biological weapon that you could drop on a planet and will transform aggressive species into monsters to kill each other? You could return hundreds of years in the future to check on the progress of evolution and if the species was still alive, presumably they would have evolved into a super-form.

The most pivotal scene of the film, particularly for transhumanists, is the moment of truth when Weyland “meets his maker.” Although the superior being — the translucent-skinned Engineer — is silent, we can draw conclusions about why his attacked his human progeny. The action occurs quickly. But in those few moments — watching the Engineer perceive us — we get a revealing glimpse into the microcosm of human society.

Weyland, the supplicant, annoyingly pesters the Engineer to grant him the boom of immortality. David relays Weyland’s selfish desires (or at least, we assume that David is in fact relaying Weyland’s desires) while Shaw, acting for the greater good of humanity, is physically suppressed with violence, brought to her knees by the fascistic domination of the dying patriarch. This simple act resounds with intense significance, displaying some of the more immature and uncivilized qualities of our species: how quickly we dominate each other for selfish gain. That the Engineer uses violence to display his distaste for human questions shows that the maker himself is not infallible. Like the humans creating androids, the Engineers creating humans are not “gods”, merely skilled technicians.

If our theoretical creators were to witness the state of our human society, what would they think? Would they want to help us perfect our many flaws, or would they be inclined to destroy us and start over, as God does in with the flood in the Old Testament? The moral of Prometheus’ techno fable may be that we shouldn’t latch on to the idea that machines or aliens or any other outside force is ultimately going to save us from ourselves. And if the quest for immortal life dehumanizes us, what is that life really worth?

While not a flawless film, Prometheus succeeds in tickling our immediate desire to experience the mysterium tremendum, that special kind of paralyzing fear that can only be inspired by a brush with divine cosmic powers. Prometheus also succeeds in presenting a mythic vision of the future, entwined with a cautionary tale about the possible selfishness of life extension technology, and the moral implications of seeding DNA and genetically evolved lifeforms into an environment. These are prophetic themes that engage in a meaningful cultural dialog, pushing the film to a level of art beyond the typical adolescent alien and robot fantasies that comprise a majority of big budget sci-fi.

Mythology and religion have traditionally served to provide answers to serious philosophical, existential questions. These days, many millions of people look to to answer immediate questions about the world around us. The assertion made in Prometheus with religious symbolism and the character of Elizabeth Shaw is that traditional religious faith can still be relevant in an age where human invention is approaching the ingenuity of the gods of legend. Is this true, or will the dated modes of religious faiths and miracles of old be replaced by new technological faiths and modern miracles: bioengineering, nanotech, data complexity, holograms, and advanced computing? Perhaps technology will be the source of future mythologies and religious quests.

Sep 07 2011

From “Dirty” To “Pristine” Uses Of Technology



I wrote a line on the Acceler8or Facebook page that went ‎”I look for the ‘dirty’ uses of technology, and then trace backwards from them to the ‘pristine’ uses.” R.U. wanted me to explain that line a little more and discuss exactly what I meant by it.

So I’d like to start by discussing why I stress “being a succubus” as part of my articles, because it’s part and parcel of those “dirty uses” I was talking about, and it gives me a chance to talk about myself and how I see this coming about in a manner that might sound a lot less like “wishful thinking” than most of you probably think possible.

So, first off, let’s start by examining the end result: Valkyrie Ice, 7 foot tall Amazon succubus. She has batwings, cloven hooves, a long prehensile tail with a spaded tip that can act as a third hand, pointed ears, upper and lower fangs, and rams horns. Why I want to look like this isn’t important. I simply do, and I am willing to go to great lengths to get my way because I’m human, irrational, and don’t give a flying fuck about whether you approve of my desires in any way.  Pretty much like most humans. The big difference is that I’m actually willing to be honest about my desires instead of keeping them concealed out of fear of being socially acceptable. You might not find succubi attractive, but I know for a fact that there are many other people out there besides me who do, and while “the majority” might raise an eyebrow at me, that still leaves millions of people in the “long tail” who are going to be perfectly happy chasing mine.

If you are not familiar with “The Long Tail” it’s the marketing term for the ever smaller demographic divisions that lie outside the “mass market.” It’s the “niche” market, the subdividisions between 1 person and “everybody.” Everybody likes food. Not everyone likes “Aunt Wheezies Real Coon Squeezins!” (No, that’s not a real product.) The “Long Tail” is what powers Amazon and EBay, finding the other people who want that still packaged 1st edition Jawa with vinyl cape and basically catering to desires that are too “small” for the big guys to bother with. The “Giant’s” can’t concern themselves with anything that won’t sell to everyone, and this has been the model for the entire industrial revolution. If “Everyone” doesn’t buy it, it’s just not worth making. However, in the age of the internet, the “Long Tail” is proving to be a market many times larger than the “Mass Market” and some companies are beginning to realize diversity is the future, not the old “You can have it in any color you like so long as it’s Black” mindset of the megacorps.

And with so many numerous technological developments ongoing, understanding the “long tail” is crucial to any attempts to predict the future. In short, any future predictions that assume that the current corporate ideals of “You take it our way, or you get nothing” will continue to remain in force are flawed. Any assumption that the “majority” will prevent the development of “odd and strange” technology to cater to individuals like me is based in the illusion that there actually is a “Majority” when in truth, every single one of us belongs to one small subsection of the “Long Tail” in one way or another. You may not want hooves and tails, but you might love to have a new nose, or to look like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. You might want neon hair, or just hair that is curly, but everyone has some desire that is not  universally shared.  

And this is what leads to the Law of Unintended consequences, technology version. “For every developed technology, there will be the ‘intended use’ it was created for and an unknown number of ‘unintended uses’ that will be found for it.”

So let’s look at my desires to be a succubus again, now that we understand that those desires are neither unique nor universal, merely one demographic among endless others in the “Long Tail.” In fact, if you go to SecondLife and do a search for “demons” you will find there are hundreds of shops dedicated to… well, horns, hooves, spaded tails, wings and everything else “demonic.” In fact, one of the most successful long term shops in all of SL is Grendel’s Children, a shop exclusively for non-human Avatars and accessories.

So I’m going to set aside long term futuristic developments in biotech and such which could lead to my physically becoming a succubus, and even set aside such “dismissible” technology as VR to look at how I could physically look like a succubus inside of ten years. We’re going to let our imaginations go wild and think like a Hollywood makeup technician with free reign on methods and an unlimited budget, and design a “succubus suit” that would allow me to walk onto a set looking like the demoness I want to be. That shouldn’t really be a huge stretch, since it’s already been done with Tim Curry in his role as “Darkness” in Ridley Scott’s Legend. I will however add one caveat, I’m going to assume the use of a lot of “in the lab” technology that could enable me to act in this suit exactly like I really had this body without any “digital” effects being added in post processing or needing a crew of puppeteers to control.

So, first off, let’s start with the body suit itself. I’m going to want it to be lightweight and unrestrictive while still supporting wings, horns, hooves and a tail. It’s going to have to fit to my form and allow me to “be naked” while still being “in costume.” It’s also going to need to be tough enough to stand up to stunts and to contain its own animatronics for the wings, tail and hooves because I’m expecting to be filmed using 360 degree camera technology and I can’t have cables and power lines connected to the suit or it will ruin the “no post processing digital effects” rule. In fact, I want this suit to look so realistic that I can walk down the street in it and not have people be able to tell it’s a suit. I’m even going to want it to be wearable dancing… and even during sex.

I know, I’m so demanding. I’m making this nearly impossible… or am I? The fact is, I’m deliberately setting the conditions to illustrate that there are numerous “in the lab” technologies that could make this a reality, with only minor modifications to suit my “other than intended” uses.

Let’s start off with the actual body suit, because it should be obvious that it’s going to require some pretty sophisticated materials to make. Metal and plastic are just not going to cut it. Traditional servomotors won’t do either. So we look to the labs, and we see a lot of developments in metamaterials. There’s a variety of potential materials to chose from, graphene being one of the most promising, although boron carbide is also a potential choice, or possibly even Kevlar. We’ve even got Aluminum foam, aerogels (and artificial muscles made from spider-silk, CNTs, and various polymers. That makes it pretty clear that while I cannot specifically say which of the various laboratory-made metamaterials will be cheap, easy to manufacture, or which will be easiest to use in a 3d printer, I can be pretty sure that one or another of them will be available to do the various things I’m going to need this suit to do.

The first thing is that it has to be skin tight. If I look at the artificial muscles being worked on, I can envision the possibility of a suit made from them that will “shrink to fit” perfectly. And as they are extremely lightweight fibers, there’s a good possibility I can make it transparent. Additionally, given the strength of said “muscles,” making a harness to keep the wings firmly attached to my back, tail firmly attached to my rear, and make sure my hoof shoes and horns fit without wobbling should be pretty easy as well. As these parts would be made out of extremely lightweight but superstrong materials, as discussed above, they should be fairly easy to keep tightly fitted to the body in the appropriate areas, especially if we have the entire suit being actively controlled to maintain optimum fit by minimally expanding and contracting as it senses my body motions.

Wait a minute, you say, how is it supposed to do that? Well, that’s where printable electronics comes in. Stanford University just perfected a means to make a “decal” out of an electronic circuit that can then be applied to any material. That suit could be literally controlled on a thread by thread basis to ensure perfect fit. In addition, it could be adjusted to provide support, like a bit of tummy tuck and breast support. While wearing it, my body could look as perfect as it’s possible to look, while (hopefully) still allowing for a “nude” look and full freedom of motion. And those same “artificial muscles” could be used to mimic the actual muscles that would be found in batwings, making them able to extend and flex just like a real one. With properly made wings, the “bouncing” effect seen in many mechanical devices that use servos could be eliminated. Also, the same “muscle cloth” could be used as the wing membranes. As for the tail, well Festo’s already created a robot “elephant’s trunk” arm, meaning a full prehensile tail is quite feasible.

In fact, the hooves might be one of the more difficult things to properly make, because it has to keep my foot on tiptoe, provide support to keep it that way without sacrificing the ability to bend my ankle, as well as control the actual hoof to keep the base of the hoof aligned to the plain of the floor to ensure good footing. This likely means a bit of exoskeleton will be needed, essentially making the hooves a prosthetic device that fits over my foot and compensates for the stress of walking like a ballerina all day. (And yes, I could, if asked, draw a potential design sketch.)

But how to control it? Well, Epoch’s Emotiv EEG headset is already available, so we simply include a version of it into the skull cap that is snuggly fitted to my head, keeping my horns solidly in place, and viola — with the proper control software and some practice, I have a “Succubus” suit that fit’s like a second skin. But we still need to provide power for all those electronics don’t we? Lucky me that several dozen different breakthroughs in ultracapacitor batteries (Google it as there are far too many to link), as well as flexible solar have been in the headlines recently, no? Those wings, with their large surface areas would make great solar collectors and there are multiple flexible storage solutions that could be sandwiched into the membranes as well.

Now a lot of this would be difficult to make right now, but with the likely advances in 3d printing over the next decade, we can certainly assume that while my suit might not be “cheap” it is likely going to be within the realm of technical feasibility. So, now that we’ve shown how we could potentially create such a suit, we have to look outside the narrow demographic of “people who want to look like succubi” and see if there’s a much broader demographic that could use this collection of technology as a solution to a much wider range of issues. I can certainly think of several. For example, the wings and musculature is likely to be seen first in a next generation model artificial arm or leg. The “skin suit” has applications as a replacement for the current “pressure suits” worn by pilots who experience high-g’s. Combined with graphene or boron carbide and some clever design, it could even be a means to create a form fitting “Ironman” exoskeleton type suit for soldiers, police, firemen, and even athletes.  Combined with an Epoc, it could possibly even be a means to enable the paralyzed to control their bodies again (prior to stemcell regeneration of nerves.) And that’s not even to mention the clothes that true “skin tight” cloth could make possible. So we can be pretty sure that a good possibility exists for the creation of the “skin suit” for reasons much less “kinky” than my demoness fetish. So now we have the “pure” uses of this technology, i.e. the uses which are broad enough to be “intentional,” and thus more likely to be developed than my rather narrow uses.

However, there is yet another factor to consider. What other demographics in the “long tail” would have alternative uses for the same technology? And I can also find plenty of those, from transvestites wanting “girl suits” to furries who would add an animal facemask with animatronics and video camera eyes to the rest, to motorcyclists (the “armored” version would probably act like a full body helmet) and even to more modest uses like “control top” panty hose that actually could act like a girdle without sacrificing important functions… like breathing.

So now, here we are, with a whole bevy of technological puzzle pieces, and a few potential ways they could be fitted together to make a variety of “solutions” to various “problems.” Will they be put together this way? Who knows? But there is a demand for products like these — or very similar ones — regardless of whether everyone shares in the demand or not. And as the “long tail” grows ever more prominent as more and more “niche markets” find their customers, I don’t doubt that my succubus suit, or something very like it, will come to be. After all, I’m a human with a desire, and willing to pay to have that desire filled, and sooner or later, someone is going to create the supply to meet my demand.

And when they do, I’m going to have fun getting my tail chased.