Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 3: Robots, cyborgs, posthumans

In this final part I want to investigate one final common assumption-that there is a fundamental difference between the artificial robot and the natural human being. In reality the lines between the biological and the machinic have been blurred for some time, and any future scenario must acknowledge that rather than the quaint sci-fi B-movie vision of a world of easily distinguishable humans and robots, we must also account for the possibility of cyborgian hybrids of flesh and technology. This corporeal transformation, coupled with the societal impacts of robotics can be seen as paving the way for an effectively posthuman future.

Which, if you’ve never read my blog before, I think sounds brilliant fun. Having written  a fair bit about posthumanism on this blog  I’m not going to try and sum it up here. Instead, let’s just keep that background knowledge in mind while considering some concrete examples of the cyborg in action, because just like robots cyborgs are creatures of social fact as much as science-fiction.

Starting small, how about some remote controlled insects?

Or this monkey controlling a prosthetic arm with its own brain. By the way, if you’ve been reading these posts and quietly worrying about the robot uprising, I hope you will now include roving armies of techno-monkeys and swarms of insectobots into your paranoid and pessimistic fantasies.

“That’s boring Scott,” I hear you sigh, “anyone can plug some hardware into some wetware”. And you are quite right. In fact a Do-It-Yourself kit and app for remote controlling cockroaches is both cheap and easily available So instead here is an example of some wetware inserted into hardware- this robot controlled with a simple brain grown from the brain cells of rats. 

Given the habitual and unconscious anthropocentrism of most humans it might be easy to dismiss the videos above because they involve animals and insects. But human cyborgs are increasingly common as well. Among those steeping into Lee Major’s shoes is this guy with a camera for an eye:

Elsewhere,  the performance artists Stelarc has for several years now explored the notion that the human body is obsolete through performance pieces that have featured his body being remote-controlled by electronic muscle stimulators by interactive audiences participating online.  he has also performed with a robotic third arm and in 2007 Stelarc had a cell-cultivated ear attached to his arm. Reading University’s professor Kevin Warwick has been engaged in Project Cyborg since the late 1990s, since when he has also, like Stelarc, used a neural interface to control a robotic arm via the internet. Warwick himself has expressed the psychological impact of becoming a cyborg:

One of the reactions I had to having the implant [in his arm] was a feeling of affinity with my computer. Once that becomes a permanent state, you’re not really a human anymore, you’re a cyborg. Your values and ethics would be bound to change, I think, and you would view un-augmented humans a little differently.

And if these examples happen to be drawn form the rareified realms of performance art and academmia there is also a notable undergound movement of bio-hackers nad street-level transhumanism (more detail of which can be found elsewhere in Nth Mind). In academia the subject of the cyborg has been kicked around since the 1980s. In  The Politics of Transhumanism Version 2.0 (March 2002) , James Hughes notes that

In 1984 Donna Haraway wrote “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” aimed as a critique of ecofeminism, and it landed with the reverberating bang of a hand grenade.  Haraway argued that it was precisely in the eroding boundary between human beings and machines, and between women and machines in particular, that we can find liberation from the old patriarchal dualisms. Haraway says she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess, and proposes that the cyborg could be the liberatory mythos for women.

 This essay, and Haraway’s subsequent writings, have inspired a new cultural studies sub-discipline of “cyborgology,” made up of feminist culture and science fiction critics, exploring cyborgs and the woman-machine interface in various permutations (Gray 1995, 2001; Kirkup 1999; Haraway 1997; Balsamo, 1996; Davis-Floyd, 1998). As yet there has been little cross-pollination between the left-wing academic cyborgologists and the transhumanists.

Hughes’ last point is important. Over the course of these three articles I hope to have demonstrated that we are indeed living in THE FUTURE; a  world of robots and cyborgs. However, because these developments are little understood, public debate on the issues has been left wanting, and those who do discuss it – Hughes’s ‘left-wing academic cyborgologists’ and the ‘transhumanists’, not to mention the scientists, military contractors and industrialists – are not engaged in discussion with one another. The inability of political leaders to deal with the impact of new technologies on the areas of work and employment are indictive of this inability to think outside of twentieth century ideologies. For example, Jennifer Robertson, in her article Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family, argues that while Japan accounts for 52% of the world’s sahre of operational robots, its embrace of robotics and bio-technologies simply serves, “to reify old or “traditional” values, such as the patriarchal extended family and sociopolitical conservatism“. The problem that faces us then, as I am fond of espousing overbearingly when inebriated, is that posthuman bodies without posthuman minds can only result in tyranny; bolstering and worsening already existing social divisions with ever more ruthless efficiency.

This does not mean we should destroy all robots, catchy as that sounds in a B-movie kind of way. Nor does it mean we should just ignore their proliferation while assuming that politicians, business leaders and military personnel surely have our best interests at heart. Instead, we could take a leaf from Donna Haraway and embrace ‘the promise of monsters’. Just as the cyborg literally and figuratively blurs the categorical distinction between human and machine, so too would a posthuman politics have to abandon categorical distinctions such as left-wing and right-wing. As was seen in Part Two, the increased presence of robots in the workplace is already impacting on  traditional notions of work and labour. A move away from these long-cherished beliefs about the place and purpose of work, abandoning the Protestant Work Ethic would, we might argue, be as big a shift in our understanding of what it means to be human, as any wide-scale embrace of human enhancements might be.

Both elements come together in FM-2030’s Upwinger Manifesto (1975), an early transhumanist text that read:

The UpWing philosophy is a visionary new thrust beyond Right and Left-wing, beyond conservative and conventional radical…We want to help accelerate the thrust beyond nations, ethnic groups, races to create a global consciousness, global institutions, a global language, global citizenship, global free flow of people, global commitments.

If such a vision seems implicitly terrifying then that brings us, in a pleasingly circular fashion back to Part One of this series, in which it was suggested that one reason the general public misunderstanding of robots is that the popular vision of them, derived from film and television, is in several important respects incorrect. As long as robots are thought of as fictional entities or distant possibilities, any public debate about future directions will be largely shaped by outmoded models of work and production and feverish memories of the robot v human war from The Terminator franchise. Not that those aren’t legitimate concerns, as the flying death-sphere in Part One proves. However, Parts Two and Three also tried to demonstrate that for all the dystopian potential of robotics they also present us with far more radical, utopian possibilities. For now at least, humans arguably have certain advantages over the machines-choice and agency. Whether we collectively exercise those choices is another question entirely. 

But as this series has argued it is possible to build a world where work is freely chosen rather than enforced, where humans are free, even encouraged, to develop their full potential without some arbitrarily defined economic goal to determine its direction; where such self-development can even be as radical as bodily enhancements and transformations; where information technologies allow (post)humans across the world to interact and communicate with one another as (post)human beings, beyond archaic signifiers and shapers of identity like nationhood, job role, ethnicity or gender. In short, a world beyond the human as we currently know it.

At the very least that has to be preferable to a world where our capitalist overlords greedily enjoy all the pleasures, advantages,and profits of our sci-fi reality while the majority of humanity are forced to perform ludicrous and poorly-paid Sisyphean tasks to ensure they are kept occupied, while solemnly watched over by line-managers who take the form of flying death-spheres.

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About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at sjzenarchy@gmail.com. View all posts by Scott Jeffery

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