Is humanity screwed? Or are we headed to dramatic new heights in the evolution of our species?
Cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction, dives into the intersection of technology and human development. It might be dealing with AI beings that look very much like us (Blade Runner), an AI systems that have trapped humans in a virtual reality world (The Matrix), or advanced sentient AI robots like in the movie Ex Machina or the novel I'm reading now, Dawn of Legaia.
One of the classics in the cyberpunk subgenre is the Japanese anime film from 1995, Ghost in the Shell. The film has been influential to cyberpunk lovers, including the notable fact that the main character (Major) was cited by the Wachowskis as they the inspiration for Trinity in The Matrix. The film's been remade now as a live-action movie starring Scarlet Johansson, which caused controversy due to the casting of a white American woman in a role that should have gone to a Japanese actress. The studio argued that there aren't any big enough Japanese female stars to put in that role, so they had to go with Johansson. Of course, that's a bit of a self-fulfilling notion because there won't ever be diverse stars to cast in such movies unless someone starts putting more diverse stars into "star-making" roles.
All the controversy aside, I found the new Ghost in the Shell still quite enjoyable in its own right. So no diss on ScarJo and her acting chops, even if it's not ideal that she got the role instead of a deserving Japanese actress. Is it a perfect film? No way. But then, what film is? I did enter the theater essentially with low expectations, so maybe that helps. One of my favorite moments of dialogue from the anime (the quoting 1 Corinthians 13:12) is absent. The film is also Americanized in ways (which is why I'm surprised they didn't just set it in futuristic NYC if they were just going to cast so many white people anyway).
The world and the visuals are executed well, the plot actually stuck more closely to the original story than I expected (maybe I have little faith in adaptations), and if this gets people interested in the anime movie and series, that strikes me as a good thing. Admittedly, I love cyberpunk (as my next novel, Sleepwalker, due out this summer is likely to make clear).
Why I Love Cyberpunk
The reason I love cyberpunk is because of the question of where we're headed as a species. This question is at the heart of my latest short film, "Empathy O.D." which just came out this week. Technology can be a double-edged sword we're still learning to properly handle. In the meantime, we might have to deal with some unexpected consequences. As I've been researching neuroscience for a while for my new novel, I ran came across fascinating information about mirror neurons and the key roles they play in our abilities to learn and empathize. Naturally, as a sci-fi writer, I just had to ask, "So what happens if our mirror neurons stop working like they should?" The result is this Blade Runner-influenced short film ...
The technology for the smart contact lenses has been in development for a while now, as this article from last May in Computer World indicates. How much time our children spend communicating through screens may have a major impact on the next generation's ability to really empathize with others. Will it play out as above? Probably not. But that's not the point of cyberpunk or sci-fi in general. Rather, it's about capturing an idea and exploring possible consequences.
After all, empathy is a pivotal part of the human experience. As neuroscientist and author, David Eagleman, writes in his book, The Brain: The Story of You, "watching someone else in pain and being in pain use the same neural machinery. This is the basis of empathy. " He goes on to express the following:
To empathize with another person is to literally feel their pain. You run a compelling simulation of what it would be like if you were in that situation. Our capacity for this is why stories—like movies and novels—are so absorbing and so pervasive across human culture.
Later Eagleman writes:
Human brains are fundamentally wired to interact: we’re a splendidly social species. Although our social drives can somethings be manipulated, they also sit squarely at the center of the human success story.
So, yeah, if we lose our ability to empathize, that's going to be a pretty big deal. "Empathy O.D." is speculative, but speculating about our future is one key role of sci-fi.
In Ghost in the Shell, a human brain is placed in an android body, which is presented as the next step in human evolution. While this notion might sound like pure science fiction exaggeration to many of us, don't be too quick to dismiss it. And don't take my word for it. Eagleman writes in his book about the likelihood that the future of space exploration will replay on the shedding of our short-lived (in galactic terms) and fragile bodies for cybernetically enhanced ones.
He's not alone. The cover article, "Beyond Human", in the April issue of National Geographic deals with how we're taking our evolution into our own hands, which means gene selection, cybernetic improvements, and off-Earth settlements that will have profound impacts on human genetics and functioning. The article's author, D. T. Max, writes, "Chris Impey, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona and an expert on space travel, foresees a permanent Martian settlement within our grandchildren's lifetimes, stocked by the 100 or 150 people necessary to make a genetically viable community." Max point out that eventually, Martian dwellers will likely be quite different than us both through cybernetic enhancement and physiological responses to a lower gravity and dust-free environment.
At the heart of Ghost in the Shell is the question of whether our memories define us or not. Is there something more that makes us who we are. The fascinating thing to me about Ghost in the Shell (and why I'm writing a novel that is definitely influenced by the original anime as well as the series, Serial Experiments Lain) is that such stories bring to light what has always been our reality.
What do I mean by this? I mean, I am not my body.
I already am a ghost in a biological shell. Is my ability to recall my past what defines me as a person? What of people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s? We don't think of them as having lost their essential nature as the person we once knew (which might say as much about us as them and open up a philosophical debate about the role other people's perceptions play on our identity).
The brain is a complex system that works in powerful ways, most of which are totally invisible to us. But is there something more that defines us as human--and specifically as the individual person we perceive ourselves to be--behind the functioning of our brains? Or can our memories be scanned and uploaded to a large enough computer system as in the movie, Transcendence?
Again, I turn to Eagleman: "Given our computing potential, it seems likely that we’ll someday be able to scan a working copy of the human brain onto a computer substrate. There is nothing, in theory, that precludes this possibility."
Nothing precludes this possibility in theory unless there's more to personhood than the firing of synapses. This, of course, becomes a spiritual question that can't quite be addressed with empirical science. That we will attempt to do this, I do not for a second doubt. What it means for the possible reality of an individual's soul or spirit, I'm not quite sure of yet. But I love thinking about it. And that's why I love cyberpunk and why I'm polishing this latest novel.