Your friendly neighborhood cyborg cop, RoboCop, is back. You may have already seen the new movie remake of the 1987 classic. Thinking back on the original movie, as a kid, I felt it offered a depressing version of the future, scary tech in the hands of bad people. Now as an adult, it makes me further wonder. Are we ready to handle the technology offered up in the movie? We better be, because now 27 years later, it’s nearly here.
I got the chance to talk to filmmaker and futurist Jason Silva about these topics. He suggests that not only should we not be afraid of our bold new world, but we may all already be cyborgs.
Silva: I have not, but the whole idea of the man-machine symbiosis is something I talk a lot about in my work. I make short films, little documentaries, about the co-evolution of humans and technology. I basically look at how exponential emerging technological changes runs counter-intuitive to the way our linear brains make projections about change and so we don’t realize how fast the future is coming and it is something I explore a lot in my work. I think the things that this film looks at are not farfetched at all. We are going to see this sort of symbiotic relationship deepen in the very near future.
R: It is funny you say that, because this movie, at least the original in the eighties, is an example of that thought to me. When I saw it as a kid I thought a lot of the technology was pretty farfetched, but now a few years down the road, these things don’t feel so farfetched.
S: Yeah, it is interesting because that is the curious thing about information technology and computers. They do evolve at exponential rates. You are probably familiar with the term Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, identified this unique trend in our semi-conductors, our chips. They seemed to double in capacity and half themselves in size every two years, and so today your smartphone is a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful than what used to be a $60 million computer that was half a building in size forty years ago. So what used to be half a building now fits in your pocket. When you extrapolate forward on those same exponential curves, what currently fits in your pocket in 25 years will be the size of a blood cell. Imagine something a million times more powerful than your smartphone that is the size of a brain cell interfacing with your biological neurons. That will be the complete symbiosis. That will be when we augment our brains at the level of the neuron.
But we have always done that as human beings. We didn’t stay in the caves. We haven’t stayed on the planet. With biotechnology, gene sequencing, we are not going to even stay within the limitations of biology. I think in a way, what it is to be human is to transcend our boundaries. That is the human story. We are the naked monkey that went to the moon. People seem to forget that. You know? And there is always this interesting relationship we have with technology. When we invented writing Socrates used to say it was going to rot our brains because we were going to write everything down and not have to remember anything, and so it would atrophy our brains.
So there has always been this human drive on the one hand to create tools, to create technologies to overcome our boundaries, but then there is always this reservation, and this fear that say these technologies are somehow unnatural and it is against nature to partake in them.
R: I have a different perspective, and kids these days have a different perspective, where it is not a fear of technology, it is more of an anticipation or just a given that we have it and there will be more.
S: Yeah, but look at all of the ways these tools have already augmented our mental capacities. We have access to all of the world’s knowledge and information in our pocket wirelessly for free in real time. You know there was an article in Time magazine, Bill Clinton wrote it. It was called The Case for Optimism, and he said forget about the haves or the have nots, because when it comes to the technology of the cell phone – and he was citing a 2010 United Nations development study – the cell phone is the greatest invention in history to pull people out of poverty. So here is this connection between technology and raising up the quality of life for people across the world.
A young person in Africa with a smartphone has more communications technology than the U.S. president had 25 years ago. So if the tools to change the world are now in everyone’s hands, then the individuals now have the power that only governments and corporations used to have a couple of decades ago. I get excited by how that increases our capacity to be creative, and how that increases our capacity to create transformative things in the world.
In the context of a film like RoboCop, we are looking at how a law enforcement person can be extended by these tools, and how his capacities can be extended by these technologies. But there are a million other ways besides law enforcement in which these technologies can extend our capacity.
R: How much have robotics moved in prosthetics?
S: I think we are seeing a crazy amount of it. I remember recently I was at a Singularity University event in the Fox lot in California, and they had these people that had spinal cord injuries and they were paralyzed. They had these robotic exoskeletons that allowed them to walk for the first time since their accidents. Literally, these exoskeletons were allowing paralyzed people to walk. I think we are going to see a lot more of that. I think people who have all kinds of debilitating mobility issues will benefit from robotic augmentation. That is even before we get into organ replacement and organ printing and synthetic biology and so on and so forth.
R: How long do you think it will be before it will not be unusual for a guy to have robotic legs?
S: Yeah, well it already exists. We already have these people that have these prosthetic leg replacements that are getting better and better all the time. There was a guy, I think he is at Oxford, a roboticist, who connected a robotic hand to his nervous system, and he was in a different laboratory. With his mind he was able to open and close the robotic fist that he was linked to. It was insane.
R: What are some of the ways you think humans will first venture into augmenting themselves to improve their capabilities?
S: Well, we have always been doing it, right? There is this whole idea that we are already cyborgs. There is a book by Andy Clark – he is a cognitive philosopher – called Natural-Born Cyborgs. He says we have always extended our capacities with our tools and we should think of these tools as an extension of our cognition, and that technology [is] our exoskeleton. It is our second skin, it is our extended phenotype. So it is innate in our species to be cyborgian in nature. We have been in the self amplifying feedback loop with our tools since stone tools, and since the written word, and what we are seeing now is just a deepening of that. But it has always been the case. We have always done this.
R: What about in a more sci-fi sense, where it is imbedded into our physical body somehow…
S: Oh, I definitely think that. Right now, [a computer] used to be half a building and now it is in our pocket, inside the fabric of our clothing. The phone is gonna disappear. Maybe it will be a bracelet. After the bracelet it will be a blood cell sized device that maybe gets installed. We already have people with Parkinson’s that have chips installed in their brain to control their tremors. We already see people have pacemakers to help their heartbeats. I mean we’re already putting these technologies into our bodies. It is only going to deepen.
R: One of the concepts, ethical issues in the movie has always been, the main character is so much machine that he is property. Do you think we will run into these issues?
S: So like, where does the human end and the machine begin? Or where does the machine end and the human begin? Yeah. These are wonderful philosophical questions to think about, right? We have always dovetailed our cognition to our tools, but when our tools start dovetailing back, where do I end and where does the tool begin? It is going to be a really Twilight Zonish situation. It is definitely interesting. Once Google is in a blood cell sized device in our brain, do we become part Google? There are certainly interesting things to think about and provocative questions, but I don’t think those provocative questions are going to do anything to slow down the onset of these technologies arriving and becoming even more pervasive. So I think these are philosophical questions that we think about and try to resolve as these things come online.
R: You mentioned how technology is moving so quick. Are there ethical issues we need to look at now, because the technology is closer than many may realize?
S: I think one of the both liberating and terrifying prospects from synthetic biology for example is that you are going to have all of these do it yourself biosynthetic labs where people are going to be playing with the software of life. We are going to have a new generation of artists that are going to be playing with genomes the way that Blake and Byron used to play with poetry. And when genomes are the new canvas for the artist, we might be able to radically upgrade the human species and the software of the biology of the human species. But it also means that someone in a garage could create a pathogen that could kill a million people.
R: Eek! That is scary.
S: Yeah, so it is like the power to play god, so to speak, is always something we have cautionary tales about, and as Craig Venter, who is one of the faces of the human genome project, when he was asked, “Are you worried about playing God?” He said, “Who’s playing?” The idea that we are the gods now, and we are doing things that our ancestors think are god-like is not a rhetorical question. You know what I mean? We really are as gods. Stewart Brand said, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” That is what he wrote in his Whole Earth Catalog. Then Edward O. Wilson wrote that we have already decommissioned natural selection, and now we have to look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.
So that is the kind of stuff that gets me excited, the philosophical statements.
R: What are some of the concepts in the movie that get you excited?
S: All of them. The idea of human augmentation. The idea of using our genius to extend our genius. We have all kinds of limitations as human beings. I mean we can’t see the whole electromagnetic spectrum, we can’t see the very small, we can’t see the very far. So we compensate for these short comings with technological scaffoldings. The microscope allows us to extend our vision into the microsphere. The telescope allows us to extend our vision into the macrosphere, the Hubble Space Telescope extends our optic nerve into space, and it allows us to mainline space and time through our optic nerve. And so I think in the contexts of this movie it has taken that metaphor and says look at the way we extend our capacities. How do human beings compensate for their limitations by using technologies to overcome those limitations? The whole movie plays on that theme. That is the overarching theme of that film.
R: When thinking of the movie in the 80s, it was this neat idea for the future, but now talking to you it seems more immediate. It is here. It is time for us to start thinking about this now.
S: Oh yeah, absolutely. To start thinking about it, but not to be doom and gloom about it. Not to be frightened. Not to ring the alarm bell, but to look at it the way the Ted conference looks at it. This is a platform that has made a name for itself by promoting big ideas in interesting ways. This doesn’t mean the end to humanity. This means the beginning of the next chapter. I guess that is the message I want to put out there.