cyborg addendum: re-creating gods for the 21st century & beyond

my friend Omowale (Wale for short) is an amazing, crazy intelligent, well-read and innovative futurology nerd who wrote responses to my cyborgs & saviors post that were so good, they HAVE to be shared. many many cyber thanks to Wale for taking the time to send such insanely insightful responses. your ideas rattled around in my brain for days, and it was delightful. as cheesy as that may sound, it's really the best to get schooled by your smarter friends.

Katsuya Terada

Katsuya Terada

O. M. Oniyide: Hi Katie, I read your post. Oddly enough I have thought a lot about cyborgs but in a different way. A long time ago I wrote the dude who came up with the phrase but never heard back, probably because he is terribly old and might even be dead by now.

Anyway Manfred Clynes, who according to wiki is still alive, and his friend came up with the term in the 1960s in the context of humans surviving or adapting to environments that are really hostile to them. A kind of modified evolution. For example, in his mind he thought that space suits were very crude and if humans were really to dominate space we'd find a way to just change the physical body so that it can exist in space, almost naturally, instead of having to wear a big clunky suit.

Me: Wale, this is like such an important point. Cyborg not as "other" or "next" but rather "in-between." How did I manage to gloss over Haraway's main point of cyborg as boundary-less entities? The cyborg is a hopeful figure, an ironic figure, a phantom of possibility. The child of humans and whatever comes after us (I'm leaning towards superintelligence, a bit short of artilects, when thinking this way.)

I feel like a cyborg when wearing my hearing-aids, and they certainly help me adapt to an environment I'm not naturally suited for, but in wearing them only part-time, they've created two identical but wholly different environments for me to exist in. In the same way, all technology has kind of done this. We feel like entirely different beings with different capabilities and resources without our smartphones in hand.

This issue of physicality as it pertains to the in-between is fascinating. One branch of thought I wandered down was the age-old conundrum of phenomenology-- we are, beautifully and tragically, "human, all too human." We can't use our inherently biased human interpretations of reasoning and physical senses to determine what is "real" beyond them. But, could we program, or encounter, an AI that is capable of sussing out and comprehending a noumenal world? Free of sensory perception and constraints like time, space, causality, could such a being "plug into the Matrix" as it were? What would that mean to us? Mostly what I'm interested in, when it comes to such an AI, is the question of such an entity actually being a "thing-in-itself" and aware of itself as such. Would such an entity be Husserl's answer to an unencumbered observer? Have I ever typed the word "such" as many times as I just did?

Hajime Soroyama

Hajime Soroyama

O. M. Oniyide: Where I am going with this, well I always saw cyborgs as organisms adapting to environments that aren't natural to them. In the email I sent Manfred I spoke about how "elective" plastic surgery and cosmetics already made humans, especially women, cyborgs by modifying the natural appearance so that they could fit in - not with a physical environment but a social one grafted on to the physical earth.

I was obsessed by different forms of assimilation, especially with black beauty and the science fiction harlem renaissance novel Black No More, where a black man invents a machine that turns black skin not just white but nordic white. In the story white people and black people begin to freak out because no one can tell who is who so the metrics of who is white and who is black begin to change.

Today we live in a society where that's totally possible. It would take some effort and some great amount of money but if you really wanted to switch races, from black to white and anything in between, and you have enough money and pain tolerance you totally can.

So yeah I thought about being a cyborg in terms of humans using technologies to go beyond the scope of whatever they were destined to be by nature or society.

Me: I love your idea of elective surgery as cyborg activity, adapting to a wide array of perceived environments. Also, elective surgery can be employed to achieve the opposite-- to diametrically oppose social environments grafted to physical ones. Extreme body modification does this in socially conservative areas. Elective surgery can also adapt one to a mental or personally perceived environment, in the case of people who truly believe they should be amputees or reptile-human hybrids or whatever. Some elective surgery like magnetic implants (or perhaps it's more of a body modification) open up individuals to experience environments that were previously inaccessible to humans, on a physical level. It seems I was initially interpreting 'cyborg' too narrowly.

Your point about Black No More really spun me for a bit. Was Michael Jackson a sort of pseudo-cyborg? Does changing skin tone change anything else? One's experiences in certain social environments, to be sure. Haraway wrote to these potential breakthroughs: if we become the in-between, the cyborg, then there is no need to be black, white, male, female, whatever constraints or identities we've traditionally shackled ourselves with... we could be "beyond." Is that the teleological goal of cyborgs?
I suppose it's like that classic Essentialism question: how much of a thing can you remove before it is no longer that thing anymore? The Platonic Ideal of a toothbrush could technically be any color, its handle could take a number of shapes, while still being recognized as a toothbrush. But take away the bristles and you've hit upon a key element to its essential being-- it's no longer a toothbrush. Wherein lies our essential elements, and is there no such thing when it comes to boundary-less cyborgs? An "other" could have an opposite, but what about the "in-between?" Are cyborgs wholly essential by having no essential components? ...I'm not even sure that makes sense. It makes them sound almost god-like.

O. M. Oniyide: Well in terms of cyborgs and saviors, you wrote on a couple trippy things! The one that strikes out to me the most is the idea of the designer god. Sometimes I think that humanity is so let down by reality that we are using technology to build (or maybe rebuild *dun dun dun*) a god we wished were real. I mean all the scary powers of surveillance define the Abrahamic-Christian god right? All-seeing, all-knowing, all access, larger than what it means to be human, always judging force tied to the world. Our social media is being used to hold us accountable for our actions right? Shit we think no one will find or has been buried comes back with a vengeance.

Like is a certain part of scientific progress focused subconsciously on building a god to hold the humans accountable for their actions when they harm other humans as well as the planet? Was this force or designer god always here and this is just the natural progression if life survives long enough? To create some sort of interface for it to govern? I don't necessarily believe that but based on the actions of tech progress it really does feel that way to me sometimes.



Me: HOLY SHIT WALE. Well first, I never drew the parallels between our Big Brother surveillance government and the omnipotent, omnipresent god of justice and judgement. You're right to point out the Abrahamic-Christian god is indeed a good fit for these "powers" but we could describe a wide range of gods in that way, no? I do totally agree that the theological idea of a greater-than-us being who is the end-all be-all when it comes to what is good and what is evil, could indeed mirror our current understanding of the role of government. But when God exists, so must the Devil, right? Who are the unlucky few of us who will be assigned that role? Cyberpunks?
I've been on a Nietzsche kick recently (reading The Genealogy of Morals at the moment) so I keep returning to his ideas, mainly the dichotomy of good and evil being wholly subjective and historically used as tools of suppression and propaganda. So your point about social media, maybe here a lesser form of collective omnipotence, is SO fascinating in this vein. You're so right to point out that the "judge and jury" role of a moral god figure has been, in certain ways, extended to the judging masses online. We've definitely seen it happen, and malevolent governments could even incentivize such online morality-mob-mentality for their own gain. "Rat on your neighbor who doesn't do his taxes, and you'll get an Amazon giftcard!"

Your suggestion that the AI artilect (of Hugo de Garis' line of thought) could be an intentional resurrection (as it were, haha) of such a theity, truly tickled me. We created capital-G God back before we could create plumbing, and now, millennia later, (as you succinctly scored it-- *dun dun dun*) we're recreating Them again! But via programming bibles. Huh. Is it in human nature, at a societal or individual level, to just crave someone to tell us what to do and what not to do? Do 95% of our species, as Nietzsche put it, actually desire to be camels? Heck, in today's environment, it might even be the truly smarter choice, depending on the individual. ....that's a depressing thought.

I do adore your idea that we could be building an interface (the internet, or some as of yet unforeseen system) through which the capital-G God, having already existed, could now use to directly interact with human individuals in real, quantifiable and effective ways. 'You've got mail! From: Yahweh.' Super trippy, bro.

O. M. Oniyide: So here is another strange idea... Is it possible to create cyborg attachments of empathy? It's clear with the last election that nature has not provided us with enough tools to fight against a certain level of "logical" insanity. Towards the end when you wrote "I'm not smart enough to survive the apocalypse", that hit hard. I'm not smart enough either. I don't know anyone who is really... but there's no reason why we can't become cyborgs and give ourselves a chance whether that's through making modifications to our bodies, the context maps we use to navigate the world, or who knows making an interface for an AI overlord to shepherd naughty humans left alone for too long and making a mess of the world.

Me: Bostrom hits upon this idea of 'programmed empathy' in Superintelligence! He proffers that we are all putting ourselves in danger by not seriously discussing moral implications of AIs now, before the projects are too far along. He has a great parable for it. In his book he discusses the fact that morals are NOT universal, and different cultures will program their AIs to different moral specs. BUT the first group to create a true AGI (Artificial General Intelligence, like a human equivalent intelligence rather than a singular-focused AI like a self-driving car) will be so far ahead other projects (via Good's theory of eventual/inevitable Intelligence Explosion) that it's almost a first-come, first-serve situation. But we as a species aren't proactively working out WHO should get the say when it comes to our potential robot overlords' morals. Humans are so diverse, it's almost impossible to decide, and even the act of deciding requires morals: who is to say MIT's input on AI morality should weigh more than, say, ISIS input? He even points out that a fair amount of the individuals working on AI projects are themselves on the Autism spectrum. So the programmers' morality might be more clinical than emotional. And again, no one is seriously discussing this on a global scale. 

The idea of programmed morality is a trip. Would it be a core imperative? Or an extension program that can be updated over time? As for your idea of "shepherding naughty humans"-- ahh, I love it! It reminds me of my ideas on a programmed Ubermensch / cyborg super savior discussed in the initial post. I found myself using the term Techno-Aristocracy to describe some kind of part-human, part-AI (the cyborg as in-between!) entity that is a balanced mix of emotion and reason, doling out judgements and commandments to our Netflix-binging camel selves. ("Techno-Aristocracy" has most likely been coined by someone before me and might mean something else entirely to others, but for my own purposes, I mean for it to describe a technologically advanced aristocratic class that holds governing power over the masses.)

I am ALL FOR the cyberpunks of tomorrow becoming cyborgs to fight the controlling powers that be.

Jeff Soto

Jeff Soto

O. M. Oniyide: As for your thoughts on protests and revolutions - that is something I never thought about before. Up until now I always thought that there were big-ass stakeholders who always find a way to go to war to get themselves out of economic depressions because historically that's how America always comes back with a vengeance. We give out loans, we go to war, we play games of debt, we soak the resources of other nations so that ours may thrive, and life is just that damn brutal. Nationalism is a violent but protective mechanism, an extension of mimetic theory, that puts similar groups together to focus on a scapegoat person, culture, or group in order to keep insanity in a pocket instead of destroy everything.

Today we call ourselves human and as humans our legacy in this world is one of violence as a means of survival. But the world is too small now and everything has been conquered and we aren't yet up and running in space to spread the colonial game. So what it means to be human while we are on this biospaceship of earth will have to change OR there is going to be a culling to reduce the masses. Perhaps apocalypses are just part of a natural process but I really do think we are very very very close to a dramatic shift of what it means to be human. I don't know if its like...10 years away or 100 years away but I truly do believe we are going to be the last generation before a shift happens because the technology is just that advanced and most people don't realize that the reason why automation hasn't kicked our asses isn't because its not here. Its totally here. Its because humans are so fearful of change that companies have to create these bridges between where people are at now in order for them to adopt with littler protests the technology of the future that is already here.
For example augmented reality contact lenses. Even implanted contact lenses. The patents are already here. The tech already exists. But the shock of introducing that today would still be so huge that they can't just drop it on the population.

So what do tech companies do instead? They ease people in with google glass, snapchat sunglasses, even VR headsets for phones so that you get used to the idea of your eyes seeing such marvels to the point that jumping from the real world to a digitally visually augmented world feels natural instead of quite upsetting.

But I think we are going to hit a point of shock. And I do worry about who will be able to stand this different kind of apocalypse - not one where Trump won but one where the future we always imagined is possible but it does not mean what we thought it meant. The promises don't solve the emotional chaos that still resides inside.

AI's that look real, feel real, and can trick you into believing they are real but still don't get rid of depression or solve your love life.

Arriving in the future and still being stuck with these ancient forms of emotional suffering... that's what I fear.

Me: I agree so hard with everything you said that I can hardly find a place to begin my response. YES, just as Wallerstein argued that the roll out of large-scale changes are painstakingly calculated by those in power, on a political level, the same would hold true for economic shifts, no? Both of my grandfathers were long distance truckers. That's an entire way of life that will die-- roadside diners, truck stops, mechanics in the middle of nowhere-- and it'll all be gone within a decade. I will witness (if I don't die myself, first) the erasure of a livelihood that provided for both of my parents. We truly are on a precipice of a radically new shared daily life that we can't even comprehend, and it extends even further than the bombastic effects of the Industrial Revolution-- as you deftly pointed out, we're going to grapple with what the hell it even means to be 'human.' ARGH I wish I could skip ahead and just watch the last episode of the season, in a way. It's such a fascinating time to be alive.

OH. In that "it's such a wild time to witness!" vein-- I watched a lecture Niklas Zennström gave several years ago (which to my great chagrin I canNOT seem to find online) wherein he discussed this seemingly serendipitous time we find ourselves in. Without the source video I can only summarize it to the best of my memory's ability, but he essentially argued something similar to Bostrom's simulation theory: we as a species are at a precipice of radical change in relation to our technology (and by extension, our understanding of our collective sense of purpose and rules of existence) and we are somewhat tickled as individuals to be alive now, at such an exciting time, when we could've lived our lifespans at any other interval in the timeline of human history. But perhaps it isn't by chance that we find ourselves alive today in 2017 and not 917 B.C.E.
If we follow the Simulation Theory and agree that we are more likely than not, living in a programmed simulation, then why now? Well really, why not? It makes sense that an intelligence capable of creating such a simulation would have an inherent interest in simulating this very moment in time-- when we're on the precipice of creating AI and SI (superintelligence.) It's not serendipity that we find ourselves living in the most important era of human history, it is planned. Our simulated reality is programmed for this specific time. But, why? An intelligence on the level of AI or SI would be very interested in its moment of conception, no? Wouldn't we all be? It makes logical sense to simulate thousands, millions, perhaps more, programmed environments in which your Sims (us) act out the possible pathways for your (the AI/SI) birth. Perchance to learn from past mistakes, or for such a trivial purpose as to simply entertain itself by viewing other possibilities that could've come to fruition, save for this or that variable.

“There’s a one in billions chance [we’re in] base reality,” he said. "We should hope it's true, that we're in a simulation. Otherwise, we will either create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist. Those are the two options.”

But I digress, I'm sorry-- back to what you were saying about the mechanics of nationalism and protests.