Mar 04 2012

Upgrading The Human Machine


I’m sure you’ve probably heard about the “man without a pulse” artificial heart recipient, who’s been in the news so much lately, but if you haven’t, Popsci has an excellent article on it here. I’m bringing it up today because it’s an illustration of one of the biases that we as transhumans will have to overcome to actually become “Trans” humans.

Which bias is that, you ask? The idea that the human body as it currently is constructed is either “perfect” or that any “enhancements” must mimic how the body currently functions. I can remember the projections once made about the Jarvik heart, including this “commercial” that made it into Robocop which predicted the “Jarvik Sports Heart” for the athletic heart patient. Yet here we are in the future predicted to have completely replaced transplants with engineered replacements, and the artificial heart that “beats” is still a fantasy. Why?

You might as well ask why we don’t yet have airplanes with flapping wings. Then ask yourself why nature never evolved birds capable of flying faster than sound. The answer is that nature doesn’t always come up with the “best solution” – just one that works. Just like Leonardo’s flapping machines never flew, a beating heart has not merely proven exceptionally difficult to reproduce, but has proven to be needlessly complex in comparison to the likely future solution, a heart that has no beat, no pulse, and which pumps blood in a continuous flow, via turbine based “jets”.

And as the article explains, there are people who have been living without a pulse for more than five years with no ill effects. One was even a Central American man who after receiving a “assist pump” disappeared for 8 months during which time his heart completely shut down, yet without any medical supervision not merely survived, but reported he “felt fine” which was why he never reported back to the doctors for a checkup. Think about that. Then compare it to a Jarvik heart recipient who was confined to bed and connected to an air compressor 24/7.

We don’t need a heartbeat to survive. Or thrive. In fact, shackled as we have been by trying to make a “beating heart” due to the bias of thinking we had to duplicate nature, we’ve spent decades failing to create that future predicted in the commercial above. The “Natural Solution” has proven to not be the “Only Solution”, merely the one that evolved and was never replaced because biology has never had the option of “temporary shutdowns” to install upgrades.

And, like so many other features of our daily lives, we assumed that just because it HAD always been that way, that it MUST always be that way.

And that is a bias that we will have to face head on over the next several years, as we continue to find solutions to various problems that have existed for so long that many people can’t even recognize that they ARE problems. For example, has it occurred to anyone that even the artificial heart above continues to suffer from this cognitive bias? As the article points out, a single turbine has been sufficient to allow people a normal life, so why is the twin pump design of the heart STILL being copied? Why stop at two? Why not a network of smaller turbines distributed around the body, with enough redundancies that even in the case of multiple pump failures (due to, say, traumatic injury) their ability to supply blood flow to the body would be unimpaired? Why needlessly duplicate the twin pump design of the biological heart? Why design a centralized system at all? Yes, the human body might be designed to operate with merely one single heart, but that system is not the ONLY option, as this artificial heart proves.

The same goes for numerous other systems in the human body. For example, the human eye has a blind spot due to the rather ridiculous fact that the retina is constructed in such a manner that the optic nerve is connected to the FRONT side of the retina, which not only requires the nerve to be transparent in order to allow light to reach the retina, but it passes THROUGH the retina to connect to the brain. In order to compensate for the blind spot of the optic nerve, the eye has to twitch to construct a composite image of what’s in the blind spot. In other words, YOU CAN’T SEE WHAT’S DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOU! And in low light conditions, you can’t see anything there at all because of the brains inability to gather sufficient information to form a composite. Want to see this blind spot in action? Stare at a fixed point for more than a few seconds and you will notice the details vanishing from the center of your vision. It’s a very well established flaw with human eyesight. And it’s merely one of hundreds of peculiarities that the human body is riddled with.

So, the question is, will future recipients of artificial eyes suffer this same curse? Will they be shackled by this same blind bias that insists that we MUST copy EXACTLY the solution that nature used, or will they be laughing at all us poor people still tied to nature’s mistakes? How many other systems in the human body could we improve on? How many will we refuse to improve? And how long will “improvements” continue to try and duplicate nature before they realize that nature doesn’t need to be duplicated? How deeply imbedded in our psyche is the belief that we can’t improve on nature? How strongly well we need to fight to overcome this rather comical insistence that we have to duplicate the solutions evolution provided before we allow ourselves to realize that those solutions are neither singular, nor always the most efficient, simply the best nature managed to provide over the course of our evolution?

Nature could never “stop the machinery” to rebuild from scratch. It HAD to go with what worked, and build from there. Yes, until now we’ve never had a choice, we simply had to accept what nature gave us. But that is no longer true, and growing less so every day. We no longer have a choice about refusing to acknowledge that we have a choice. And the longer we refuse to recognize that the “human machine” is not only upgradeable, but direly in NEED of upgrading, the longer we condemn ourselves to lives shackled by the limitations blind evolution created for us.

So in the end, the question is why would you choose a life of limits, when you could have a future without them? And once people begin to realize that this IS the fundamental question of human enhancement, and more and more people begin to overcome these limits, maybe that question will become why did we ever allow ourselves to be limited in the first place?

Jun 23 2011

I Am A Mechanical Man: Robocops & Robowars


“Now, to some extent, we’re all Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop.”

Some movies ought to be left alone. Not because they’re no longer relevant… but because they’re too relevant. Jose Padiliha’s planned 2013 reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterwork Robocop is one such transgression of cinematic and historical decency. In 1987, Robocop was science fiction. Now, it’s the nightly news. One wonders what a Robocop reboot would have to say about a world that’s now a lot closer to the original movie than we might like to admit

Robocop was a profoundly humanist film. It was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s satire of American corporate culture, as he would later parody American imperialism with Starship Troopers — though the point of both movies was largely lost on American audiences easily distracted by the tongue-in-cheek hyperviolence. It was about Detroit as a microcosm of America. It was about American industry — both blue and white collar — becoming outmoded. It was about an Alvin Toffler Third Wave world in which cops, criminals and governments alike are just branches of corporations; corporations that fuel inner city chaos and wars of imperial expansion in order to keep the bottom line up. Robocop was about a world only slightly less commodified than our own — as tagged by the film’s running catch phrase, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

Set in an exaggerated version of the Reagan/Thatcher era, much of the film’s narrative fascination came from observing a corporate, cybernetic police state, considered to be a science fiction parody of the then-current political climate, but science fiction nonetheless. A quarter century and two Bushes later, this is no longer the case.

Now, to some extent, we’re all Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop. Though we may not be physically grafted to machines (yet), we are welded to them in every other possible way, fused to them in consciousness, dependent on them not only to support or enhance almost every part of our existences but also to uphold an increasingly restrictive social order. We live in a corporate military state in which wars are conducted by robotics, in which Predator drones patrol our far-off imperial holdings and we patrol ourselves through the voluntary surveillance system called Facebook.

We are completely enmeshed and interwoven with technology, both as consumer and producer — reduced to being subjects of the narrative of “high tech” in which there is no longer a split between human and machine, but rather a split between “human machine” and “machine machine,” like the split between Robocop and his nemesis, the ED209 walking tank. Now humanity is not something that maintains opposition to “machine” but something that is performed within the context of “machine.” Some machines are considered human (for instance, Apple products) and some are not (Microsoft products), and we are only ever as human as the electronic experiences we choose to consume. Our social identities are subsets of these machines — a carefully cultivated Google trail; a mask worn within the mainframe.

Now, the corporatized police of Robocop seem prophetically accurate — quaint even. In a 2009 TED talk, the Brookings Institution’s P. W. Singer revealed that there are 5,300 unmanned air drones and 12,000 unmanned ground systems currently deployed in the Middle East by the United States military. These numbers are projected to skyrocket in coming years — by 2015, more than half of the army will be robotic. And that’s only the U.S. — 43 countries are currently working on military robots.

The soldier of the near future will look a lot like Robocop — consider DARPA and Raytheon’s combat exoskeleton prototypes. The ED209 isn’t that different from U.S. military robots already in development or deployment like the BigDog rough-terrain robot, much publicized on the Internet, as well as lesser-known tank or pack robots like the ACER, MATILDA, TALON, MARV and MAUD, and many others. Or Japanese company Sakakibara Kikai’s Landwalker, which looks pretty much exactly like ED209. ED209’s short-circuit from the beginning of the film, when it accidentally kills a corporate lackey. This, too, is now something that has occurred. In his TED talk, Singer describes a South African anti-aircraft cannon that had a “software glitch” and killed nine soldiers. Singer calls this “unmanned slaughter,” conducted by machines that are unable to comprehend the idea of “war crime.” Even ED209 squeals like a recognizable form of life when vanquished. However, Predator and Reaper drones are completely silent, providing no warning before they strike.

We have robots in the air — unmanned drones; the newly completed Anubis assassination micro-drone. We have robots in space — the recently launched, classified X-37B plane. And we have a whole host of other current or projected future weapons seemingly culled from 1980s science fiction films — spiderweb armor, liquid armor, invisibility cloaks, drones made to look like insects.

These are not merely efficient, emotionless killing machines. They are also instruments of psychological terror. They are the new face of the Panopticon— as Jeremy Bentham once examined (to the great detriment of everybody ever since, as it has become the model that our culture is to some extent based on), those who are made to think they are being watched are just as controlled as those that actually are being watched.

“We have them thinking that we can track them anywhere,” a former top CIA operations official recently told the Washington Post, referring to the psychological tactic of leading Taliban to believe that tracking devices for Predator drones could be everywhere and in anything. “That we’ve got devices in their cars, their houses, everywhere. They’re so afraid to stay in their houses at night they’re digging foxholes to sleep in.”

These machines are the implements of casual genocide. They are antithetical to human life, a betrayal of humanity, as they are a way to further remove the act of killing from anything that might be able to find remorse in doing so. Indeed, no one will even be able to find any meaning at all, even flat-out hatred, which would still be a human emotional response. Robotic war will be war conducted by spreadsheets. And, ultimately, such machines will hold no allegiance to any country, as they will be quickly copied by or even sold to the highest bidder.

This is where questions must be raised about the responsibility and power not only of arms manufacturers and their comrades, but also of science fiction writers and directors. Over the preceding decades, we have fetishized the machine. Art has concerned itself with the shock of new technology; with the process of becoming cybernetic. Artists have become spectators at the surgery, providing running commentary as we wait to see whether our culture will accept or reject its implants. Yet artists are more than just observers, reporters, and commentators. They are also creators. The narrative of robotic war, begun in science fiction and made real by defense contracts, might be seen, from a certain angle, as the progression of a single thing manifesting over time. Though art may be the play-acting of an idea, it can also, to some extent, be the testing of an idea — and if successful in its simulation of reality, can all too easily become reality.

On the other hand, counter-narratives to “technological progress” prove just as appalling.  The complete rejection of science represented by the Sarah Palins of the world is almost inconceivably brutal dehumanization — a complete subjugation to a reactionary, patriarchal, anti-woman, anti-human “god” — every bit as frightening as the narrative of cyborg hypercapitalism.

In A Cyborg Manifesto (1991), Donna Haraway wrote, “From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war… From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.”

What would the real cybernetic shock be now? The grafting of more machine parts into our lives or the grafting of more human parts? Our lives are almost unthinkable without Internet connections, or without the oil brought home for us by the machines of war. To withdraw from either would be a far more potentially fatal shock to the system than the implantation of actual wetware cybernetics. An augmented reality optical chip, for instance, would only help facilitate our current condition, and would likely become socially enforced within certain economic brackets, just as smart phones were.

Can we create a non-alienated cybernetic world? Can we even begin to conceive of what that would look like? We can’t undo the past, but we can change the script of the future before it is acted out. Perhaps the challenge lies is finding new narratives that, instead of reacting against high technology, effectively reorient it towards serving human life — and humane values — instead of destroying them.

The Luddite back-to-the-land ethos of the early environmental movement has given way in recent decades to a vision of a more integrated future. Our most viable version of a livable future is the Green Cyborg in which technology and humanity meet halfway and start caretaking rather than dominating the Earth’s natural resources. This should be framed not as a return to neolithic, matriarchal values but as a forward synthesis of industrial technology and holistic thinking. This requires a simple shift in perspective from observing the world as a jumble of disconnected parts to observing it as an integrated system in which each part affects every other. It is a shift from seeing the world as parts in competition with each other to seeing it as parts striving for an emergent state of co-operative efficiency.

A liveable future lies not in a wholesale rejection of the cyborg process of becoming welded to high technology, but in remembering that we are already cyborgs — that we are already inseparably connected not only to each other, but to everything on the planet, including even the worst parts of postindustrial society and its byproducts and side-effects.

The challenges of this century will be cyborg ones. They will be challenges of synthesis — of discovering how to achieve balance within systems. We will work to establish an ever-evolving cybernetic balance within a frontierless, privacy-free, boundary-free, pluralistic world. This is not a New Age band-aid in which the easy answer is to simply realize that we are all one. Realizing that we are all parts of a single system is only the first step in effectively coping with and implementing that realization — work that may require more time than we have, yet which we must accomplish nonetheless. It is nothing less than the firm establishment and protection of our humanity and humaneness against all affronts to it; nothing less than remembering that we must use our tools properly lest we be used by them.

Robocop can’t be remade because it’s no longer the story of one comic book hero — it’s the story of all of us, left scratching our heads after the operation, struggling to integrate, hoping to one day remember what life was once like, left with the daily task of making sense and meaning of a mechanized world from which the only escape is that which we build from the scrapheap.