Too Posthuman to Die?

July 3, 2012

By Jason Workman

levitating caterpillar

With the sliding doors open, my brother and I sat with the view and scent of an idyllic forest garden. After spending almost two weeks as a visitor here at Shikigami, nestled between wooded hills, on the Pacific coast of Honshu Island, Japan, I found amidst familiar rhythms, endless variety and nuance. Whether lighting a handful of brittle foliage to fire the rocket stove, following a meandering garden path to collect a colander of leafy greens, sitting at a bend in the stream listening to water snag rocks, drinking fragrant tea from a hand thrown cup, or watching the flicker of a large cosmically-dark butterfly blur your vision. Within the space of close attention, no two moments are alike, life is in constant flux.

The view beyond this forest garden is of a hillside cleared of its native vegetation for the purposes of plantation timber. This land is no longer biodiverse, and just one repercussion of this, is that the topography here, as in many other parts of Japan, is in perpetual danger of sliding away after heavy rain. While some surface erosion is common on steeply pitched slopes, landslides, which are much more destructive, are predominately caused by disruption of native habitat. It is a cycle of degradation. Mono-cultures with no ground cover, lacking inputs of organic mass (to decay back into soil), create non-resilient, depleted soils and give rise to weak rooted trees (which ironically here, have also proven to be an economic failure).

A task which happily coincided with my stay, was to harvest the first, second and third leaves of the Camellia sinensis, and process – employing heat and one’s hands – these mildly fragrant leaves into an aromatic Kamairicha (tea). As we worked and talked, hands stained lightly green, the conversation took an apocalyptic turn. Enter futurist and robotocist, Hans Moravec.

Moravec, born 1948, Austria, desires – amongst other things – to abandon the human body. The very body that at that precise moment, was coordinating itself to roll excess moisture from clumped leaves, while simultaneously revelling in, and calibrating to the fine sensations of the day. A clenching seized my gut as I struggled to digest what was being relayed – mind downloading / uploading (into a remote and artificial body) – the mind a digital ‘architecture’ supplanting the need of an ‘analogue’ flesh. In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nation (1991) Jerry Mander provides an overview of Moravec’s whacked, dangerous and nihilistic aspirations[1]. As I listened to the reading of a few excerpts, Mander’s words oscillated between reality and unreality, terminating eventually, with an existential chill, only half real inside my head.

Forays into virtual reality and telepresence – as mediated through ‘remote’ robotic bodies, are merely a fledgling phase in the enhancement of our ‘capabilities’;

The remote bodies we will inhabit can be stronger, faster and have better senses than our “home” body. In fact, as our home body ages and weakens, we might compensate by turning up some kind of “volume control”. Eventually, we might wish to bypass our atrophied muscles and dimmed senses altogether, if neurobiology learns enough to connect our sensory and motor nerves directly to electronic interfaces. Then all the harness hardware could be discarded as obsolete, along with our sense organs and muscles, and indeed most of our body. There would be no “home” experiences to return to, but our remote and virtual existences would be better than ever.[2]
– Hans Moravec

The human – following on from an untidy, unwieldy and resistant ‘nature’, is a thing (obviously also a ‘natural thing’ and subject to the same laws of decay?) to be manipulated, moulded, controlled and transcended.

…the brain is a biological machine not designed to function forever, even in an optimal physical environment. As it begins to malfunction, might we not choose to use the same advanced neurological electronics that make possible our links to the external world, to replace the gray matter as it begins to fail? Bit by bit our brain is replaced by electronic equivalents, which work at least as well, leaving our personality and thoughts clearer than ever. Eventually everything has been replaced by manufactured parts.[3]
– Hans Moravec

Aging and death are increasingly seen as pathologies, and not as natural processes. Subsequently, these degenerative processes are being treated ever more liberally, with intricate, and experimental technologies. Death – for the anti-aging movement, for futurists, and within medical science itself (with its predilection for quantity (lifespan) over quality) – is being conceived of – if not as surmountable, then at the very least as something to be postponed. Moravec’s sketch for a ‘postbiological’ future; The human as cyborg, is merely on the extreme (and logical?) end of this technological thinking.

The U.S. military plans to implant soldiers with medical devices [utilising nanotechnology], making them harder to kill with diseases……………..Stanford University researchers are developing tiny robotic monitors that can diagnose illnesses, monitor vital stats and even deliver medicine into the bloodstream, similar to the devices that the military plans to create.[4]

At the risk of affording Moravec any more space on the page, the cult of immortality to which he subscribes (alongside notable futurist peers: Kurzweil, Minsky, Warwick et al) has numerous, extant and future implications, not in the least because the very technology that is most salient for futurists: nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, simulated reality, robotics……is current research fodder of many prestigious, mainstream, research laboratories across the world[5], or else it has already obtained either nascent or broad application within the public realm. That this technology comes with myriad, little understood risks, and with unpredictable consequences, ranging from the relatively benign to the catastrophic[6], should be a prompt for concern, as should the fact that every other interest on this planet is excluded, barring one – the human.

Tired of discussing M______, and his apocalyptic future (which he gives about even probability of coming about)[7], we left the house, and walked a short distance, on a dirt path, into the bamboo grove. As we dug out a few of the freshest shoots – the smell of wild pig in the air, the bamboo colliding in a light percussive music – the day’s lightness insinuated itself back into my flesh. This living was no less intense for knowledge of the inevitable – everything sliding toward a destiny – that we are again, to become food for this earth.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

(This piece was first published for the exhibition Projections by Alex Rizkalla – Place Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, July 2012)

[1] All the local materials (of the earth) will be plundered and turned into machines, and these ‘conscious’ artificially intelligent robots, far superior, physically and intellectually to the human, will at the very best treat humanity benignly, as a curiosity, a relic of the past.
[2] Moravec,H. (1992) ‘Pigs in Cyberspace.’
[3] Ibid
[4] Knibbs, K, March 21, 2012, Mobiledia. Accessed 25/6/12
[5] Moravec, regarded as a pioneer of the robotics industry, helped establish The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he currently holds the position of adjunct professor. The Robotics Institute, known as R.I has a staff of 500 and a budget of 65 million (2012). MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL, is the largest on-campus laboratory in the US and was originally formed by the cognitive scientist/futurist Mervin Minsky in 1970 as an offshoot of his A.I group.
[6] Bostrom, N. (2002) ‘Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards’ and Bostrom, N. (2011) ‘Existential Risk Reduction as the Most Important Task for Humanity.’PDF
[7] Platt, C. (1995) ‘Superhumanism’, in Wired, Issue 3.10, October 1995.
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4 Responses to “Too Posthuman to Die?”


  1. Mahalo nui loa for the warning Jason. Like your brother- you are a very gifted and thoughtful writer – much for shared korero here – nga mihi- Cath Koa and Karin


  2. Very interesting juxtaposition of ideas. I find myself drawn to both: the acceptance of death as natural and perhaps even good, and the surmounting of death to become something never before seen. They are, however, incompatible, and I suspect my mind will only be made up when faced with a more or less immediate choice between the two.

  3. jsworkman Says:

    Kia ora Cath and Karin, thanks for your kind comment. Best, Jason

  4. kenelwood Says:

    I just kept re-reading the first paragraph, over and over again.

    Beautiful.

    ken


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