Ghost in the shell: A glimpse of our cyborg future

A version of this article was published by on the 3rd of April 2017 to coincide with the release of the live action version Ghost in the Shell movie starring Scarlet Johannsen.

How closely will we live with our technology in the future and how will it change us? 

In 1989 the Japanese artist, Masamune Shirow, created the Manga cartoon series “Ghost in the Shell” imagining a hi-tech, but grimy and ghetto-ridden, Japanese metropolis populated by people and robots, and by cyborgs—humans that are technologically-enhanced.  Beyond the superhuman strength, resilience, and x-ray vision provided by bodily enhancements, one of the most transformative aspect of Shirow’s world was his notion of brain augmentation, the idea that as cyborgs we might have two brains rather than one. Our biological brain—the ghost in the shell—would be interfaced via neural implants to powerful embedded computers that would give us lightening-fast reactions, and heightened powers of reasoning, learning and memory.  Writing in the early days of the internet, Shirow foresaw that this brain-computer interface would allow us to overcome that fundamental limitation of the human condition—that our minds are trapped inside our heads.  In Shirow’s transhuman future our minds would be free to roam, relaying our thoughts and imaginings to other networked brains, entering, via the cloud, into distant devices and sensors, “deep diving” another’s mind to understand and share their experience.

The opening sequence of the 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” animated film shows the re-birth of Major Motoko Kusanagi as a Cyborg.

Shirow’s stories also pin-pointed some of the dangers from this technological giant leap.  In a world where knowledge is power, these brain-computer interfaces would create new tools for government surveillance and control, and new kinds of crime such as “mind-jacking”—the remote control of another’s thoughts and actions.   Nevertheless, there was also a spiritual side to Shirow’s narrative: that the cyborg condition might be the next step in our evolution, and that the widening of perspective and the merging of individuality that could follow from a networking of minds could be a path to enlightenment.  

This week [3rd April 2017] saw the release of new cinematic interpretation of Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell.  Borrowing heavily from Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 classic anime re-telling, the new live action version sees Scarlet Johanssen cast as the cyborg “Major” working for Section 9, a government-run security organisation charged with fighting terrorism.  Directed by Rupert Sanders, the new film is visually stunning and the story-line lovingly recapitulates some of the best scene from the original anime.  Sadly though, Sanders’ movie pulls its punches around the core question of how this technology could change the human condition. Indeed, if casting Western actors in most of the key roles wasn’t enough, the film also engages in a form of cultural imperialism superimposing the myth of the American all-action hero—what you are is defined by what you do—on a character who is almost its complete antithesis. Major fights the battles of her masters with increasing relunctance, questioning why she should do these things, drawn to escape and contemplation—trying to piece together fragments of memory to create a meaningful life. A scene midway through the film shows us, even more bluntly, the central role of memory in creating the self—we see the complete breakdown of a man who, having been mind-jacked, faces the realisation that his identity is built on false memories of a life never lived, and a family who never existed. The message of the (original) Ghost in the Shell is that it is memory that defines us, therefore we must be careful with technologies that interface the brain, and that, in words Batou, the Major’s chief lieutenant, can fuse fantasy, reality, dreams, memory till “its all the same, its all just noise”.  Where the 1995 anime talked of the possibility of elevating consciousness to a higher plane and of “becoming part of all things”, the remake takes a more anti-technology stance emphasising, through a series of injected Hollywood clichés, the risk of lost individuality.

Trailer for the 2017 live action version of “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures

In the real world, the notion of networked minds is already upon us: touch screens, key-pads, cameras, the cloud, mobile and internet, are linking us more-and-more directly and instantly to a widening circle of people, and opening up our personal lives to surveillance and potential manipulation by governments, advertisers, or worse.   Brain implants already exist that can mitigate some of the symptoms of brain conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to depression, and are being developed to overcome sensory impairments such as blindness. On the darker side, remote control of implanted brain stimulators has been used to guide a rat through a maze, a technology that could be applied to humans if someone were to choose to misuse it in that way.  The possibility of voluntarily networking our minds has also arrived. Devices like the Emotiv are simple wearable mind-readers that can detect some of the signature electrical signals emitted by our brains, and are sufficient to allow you to take some action in the world by thinking. On the AI side, work in my own lab at Sheffield Robotics is exploring the possibility of building robot analogues of human autobiographical memory.  The fusion of such systems with the human brain is not possible with today’s technology but it is imagineable in the decades to come.  Were an electronic implant to be developed that could permanently enhance your memory and intelligence would you be tempted? Such technologies may not be that far away and their power to fundamentally change the human condition should not be under-estimated.

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