The Dividing Line Between Human and Replicant Already Happened

Brian S Hall / May 27th, 2013

In the film, Iron Man 3, the good guys encase themselves in tech. The bad guys put the tech inside their bodies. This is telling. Hollywood – and most of America – remains oddly uncomfortable with the notion of technology which “alters” our self – even as it alters everything we see, hear and touch.

No surprise, then, that Tony Stark, the man inside the Iron Man suit, fires off witty bombs in the vain hope it will ease his mental suffering rather than taking a pill – blue, red or otherwise – to help resolve his constant panic attacks.

This idea that the tech we place inside us is to be feared, unlike all the tech swirling outside of us, is a dated and dying relic of our fading, twentieth-century upbringing.

We are all already replicants.

Wikipedia defines “replicant” as “a bioengineered or biorobotic being created in the film Blade Runner. (Replicants) are virtually identical to an adult human, but have superior strength, agility, and variable intelligence depending on the model. Because of their physical similarity to humans, a replicant must be detected by its lack of emotional responses and empathy to questions posed in a Voight-Kampff test.”

What test could we use today to detect a replicant? Should we? Probably, it’s too late to discern. Rather than optimizing artificial intelligence tests, we may ultimately need to design tests to determine what is really real – assuming our future technology affords us one “true” sanctioned reality.

I suspect that many of us fear technology which goes inside us because we deeply fear that this changes, possibly forever, who we are, how we think, what we can do, what we believe, how we feel, even if only a little. As the world changes ever-faster, we cling to the idea that somehow we – our being, our self, our consciousness – can forever remain the same.

This is a false belief.

The truth is more frightening and far more awesome. Very soon, we will refuse to deny ourselves – all of us – the clear and present self-altering benefits and protections of advancing technology even while, as in our fiction, we cling to a idealized notion of the purity of who we are.

I believe I can prove this.

We are already live-tweeting (and vining) brain surgery. Anyone can witness a man’s brain being altered – or “repaired.” Highly technical work on human brains is about to become as commonplace as the work done on our hearts. Only this time, we will watch – making it radically more accessible.

Kaiba Gionfriddo, nearly 2 years old, is alive because doctors at the University of Michigan used a 3D printer to create a airway splint so that he can breathe. As the physical went digital, now, the digital – restricted only by our imagination – becomes physical.

Young Grady Hoffman was confined to an isolation room for two months. The child used a telepresence robot to interact with the outside world – which included his parents and siblings. How much of that child’s being was contained within the robot? 5%? 50%? How much a mere 5 years from now?

Should this young boy from South Africa be denied having a hand crafted for him by a 3D printer? Of course not. Should he not be allowed to pitch on his Little League baseball team even if the hand offers him some advantage? What if he goes pro?

These headphones monitor brainwaves then play songs to match the person’s mood. What better knowledge graph or recommendation engine could there be? On what day will Google Glass offer this capability – and make it worth our while to serve up exactly the right content in exchange for the stunningly personal data they can mine?

Children are alive, and we are entertained, by altering our bodies and having our brainwaves probed. Given that we cannot prevent our brainwaves from escaping our “being,” today’s brain monitoring headphones will probably lead to tomorrow’s grocery store Muzak – mundanely and algorithmically sending specific songs into our head – and ours alone – to entice us to spend more money in the toiletries aisle. How is this any different than commanding to a “replicant” to mop the floors?

Publicly funded scientists in the United States are actively working on fully restoring memories – such as those lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

In people whose brains have suffered damage from Alzheimer’s, stroke, or injury, disrupted neuronal networks often prevent long-term memories from forming. For more than two decades, Dr. Berger has designed silicon chips to mimic the signal processing that those neurons do when they’re functioning properly—the work that allows us to recall experiences and knowledge for more than a minute. Ultimately, Berger wants to restore the ability to create long-term memories by implanting chips like these in the brain.

The path to success in this, which almost no one objects to, obviously opens up the potential for creating or altering memories. A memory, after all, is nothing but a series of electrical impulses. Tweak one or tweak them all – they have been changed. The fact is, the technology to alter and to create memories is a given. All that’s left now is to figure out how cheaply and massively scalable such technology is.

Everything about us – who we are, who we believe we are – is already altered by technology. Today’s baby-steps are next decade’s global disruption to our very notions of life, living and humanity.

Deliberate, publicly-sanctioned alterations to the human mind is the final frontier – and the future has arrived. UC Berkeley scientists are working to protect computing systems by having your brain activity serve as a identifier – your personalized access code, as it were. The few people who actually read William Gibson’s Neuromancer thirty years ago likely never really believed they would be alive to experience such a blurred physical-cyber existence.

In fact, we may have already surpassed this fiction. Researchers at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto are using bulk computing power to monitor an individual’s MRI scans to determine what that person is dreaming. Know what a person hears, perceives, dreams – and feels – is to know that someone or some external force can alter each of these. Won’t each of us embed technology within ourselves just to prevent this?

Soon, we will consume technology if for no other reason to retain our sense of self, not lose it.

We are a society that fears the potential ill effects – and possible amorality – of consuming drugs like ecstasy while at the same time idly accepting shockingly advancing changes to who we are as human beings. We need to face the truth: we are on the cusp of technologically altering our self to maintain our self.

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.
  • Matang_Lawin

    Blade Runner – Coming to theaters nationwide…. 😀

  • jfutral

    It is pretty much the post-modern existential question, isn’t it? I think we are OK with modifications that make us either “normal” or better. I think we are fundamentally fearful of the uncontrollable especially with regard to ourselves. Who is in control of me when that new fangled gadget is inside me or my brain?

    I think it is more the rationalists’ dilemma. If we really are only the sum of our parts, altering our parts fundamentally alters who we are. Even if we are more than the sum of our parts, what affect do our parts have on that which is not? The question becomes one of free will vs predetermination. And we do love our free will, real or perceived.

    Joe

    • Great comment, thanks. I was happy to have a chance to write this here. We understand that technology is altering our world and possibly our selves. I wanted to show that soon we will be (somewhat) forced to consume technology simply to *maintain* our sense of self.

      • jfutral

        An artist, Makoto Fujimura, put the pre-modern-post-human questions like this (Futral’s paraphrase):

        pre-modern art asked, how do you paint a flower?

        modern art asked, what is a flower?

        post-modern art asked, is there a flower?

        Which brings us to our post-human era of not just technological blending, but also other genetic possibilities. What is a human?

        Joe

      • Rich

        Some people are so far into technology that they’ve lost their perspective. Not naming any names, of course.

  • Rich

    “How much of that child’s being was contained within the robot?” You might as well ask how much of your being is contained within a landline phone when you make a call, or how much of your being is contained within a table lamp when you turn it on. That’s a pretty strange view.

    “A memory, after all, is nothing but a series of electrical impulses.” Have you forgotten what life is?

Protected by Gerben Law