Body Modification’s Role In The
Coming Human-Robot Apocalypse
The world as we know it — the world dominated by homo sapiens — is quickly coming to an end. We may well be the last generation of “true humans” that live out natural lives, and I believe that it is essential that we embrace body modification in order not only to safely and positively prepare ourselves for transition into our next evolutionary step, but also to survive that step. We’re not just watching human evolution — we’re about to watch a battle for survival between human and non-human entities in what you’ve heard me talking about for years in my online journal: the coming human-robot apocalypse.
Laugh it up, puny humans, but I’m not kidding. Hear me out before you assume this is just crazy old Shannon on another conspiratorial rant.
Those of you who are not computer scientists may well be writing this off as insane sci-fi driven paranoia — but it’s a belief held for solid reasons by respected scientists from Ray Kurzweil (a primary AI developer) and Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems), to more far-out theorists such as Hans Moravec and even Ted Kaczynski. To put it simply, begin with Moore’s Law, which basically states that computing power doubles every two years. This has consistently rang true since it was first proposed in 1965, and shows no signs of slowing, even keeping in mind only “traditional” technologies. Many would suggest that with leaps being made in quantum computing, three-dimensional circuitry, genetic computing, and so on, that this process may well accelerate dramatically faster than expected.
Conservative estimates suggest that the computing power of about $1,000 worth of electronics will be able to do about a trillion calculations per second within five years; coupled with most devices transitioning to wireless and advances in humanoid robotics (NASA has already demonstrated a “human” hand, and both Sony and Honda have functioning bipedal robots — and DARPA is creating a terrifying array of fully autonomous weapons and monitoring systems from self-arranging minefields to drone fighters to “Total Information Awareness” data processing entities) it is safe to assume that the integration of “intelligent” robotic technology will be deeply pervasive. Given that it will probably dramatically improve (or, let’s say, “make easier”) our lives, it is unlikely that this shift will be met with any resistance. Sandia Labs, along with many universities and research institutes around the world are demonstrating increasingly advanced learning machines and computers capable of abstract thought (versus older “rule based” artificial intelligence systems), in both augmentory and independent fashions.
The problem will start to become apparent in about fifteen years, by which time (again going only by the most conservative estimates) the average computer (and remember that there will be billions of these on the planet) will have the computational power of the human mind [Ed. Note: Since the initial publication of this article Kurzweil has pointed out that the machines will at this point have the hardware power but not the software power and that the timeline may be slightly more extended than I list here — however, as a programmer I think it is likely that self-writing software will soon progress at truly explosive rates and his warning may be overly conservative]. Again let me emphasize that I’m not talking about incredibly fast serial processing — after all, no matter how fast you make a calculator, it’s not actually “intelligent” any more than a car engine “understands” the laws of physics. I’m speaking of hugely parallel machines capable of abstract thinking — able to understand art, philosophy, literature, and so on as well as any person, coupled with a perfect memory and a radically faster “execution speed” (electrical circuits switch thousands of times faster than the electrochemical circuits our minds use).
Advance another twenty years, and a single low cost computer will be about as powerful as a thousand human minds. At this point in time almost all agricultural and industrial processes will be machine controlled and humans will have little involvement in the day-to-day survival of the species. Most computer scientists predict that at this point computers will begin claiming consciousness and asserting themselves as individuals… and that’s when human history reaches its end.
Optimists and transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil suggest that the end result will be a merger of human and robot, and that we’ll be able to do things like “upload” our intelligence into the machines and enjoy the world through a combination of non-physical presence, virtual reality, and even nanobot swarms “creating” objects as needed. Unfortunately this is wishful thinking and will not come about, for one main reason: humans are the weak part of this equation.
Within a quarter century computers will be thousands of times “smarter” than people. Within fifty years we’re looking at an even dramatically larger intellectual gap. Ask yourself this: how is humanity’s relationship with apes? We happily destroy their environment, and use their amputated hands as ashtrays — and have at best 50% more neural processing capacity than they do. We kill and eat many mammals that we have perhaps only ten times the brainpower of — when we start talking differentials of 210 to 220, the intellectual relationship is about the same as the relationship we have with ants (highly social and “intelligent” creatures, at least in relative terms). When’s the last time you had a good conversation with an ant? When’s the last time you considered an ant’s welfare, let alone considered its welfare equivalent to your own?
Cellular interfaces — connections between electronics and neural cells are getting better and better, promising advances in prosthetics and eventually amazing things like mind-computer interfaces. As I mentioned, Kurzweil proposes that the end result of this will be human-computer lifeforms, and the eventual blurring of human and machine as we become dual entities. The fundamental flaw in this thinking, in my opinion, is that we fleshbags are the weak component, and weak, obsolete components are eventually removed and replaced. Good engineering will not allow for biological components to be part of the equation, and the notion of “downloading” our consciousness into machines that have thousands of times the consciousness we have is simply ludicrous — does anyone reading this want to sign up to download the consciousness of an ant to replace or augment their own?
Resources are limited. Space is limited. Energy is limited… and the environmental needs of machines and humans are exclusionary. Even if we assume they have no desire to replicate, they will still consume resources and produce waste materials. Logically it is difficult to believe that there will not come a time very soon where humans — and quite possibly all biological life on this planet — will enter into conflict with our own creations. Given their godlike stature next to our own, the outcome should be rather obvious.
The fact is that advanced technology, if allowed to continue, will first match, then exceed, and then replace humans. Nothing I’ve written above is particularly speculative or out on a limb — if anything I’ve been conservative in my statements. So what do we do? Neo-Luddite philosophers have proposed terrorist actions designed to take down the system, to smash us back to the stone age where we can’t do this type of harm to ourselves, with many pointing out that even without the “robot apocalypse” issue the increasingly complex systems we’re living under bring with them increasingly disastrous crashes. As the Unabomber writes,
Given all the problems in the world that humans have created, it is certainly possible that the system will break down on its own, but as long as it’s going strong I have difficulty believing that Luddite terrorists could actually induce the breakdown, and even if they did, it won’t be for the betterment of humanity. In addition to the fact that modern power structures give such a plan dubious chances of victory, it doesn’t permanently solve the problem anyway, nor does it allow humans to survive in the long term — the fact is that unless we become a spacefaring people we will be destroyed by either an asteroid strike, environmental collapse, the eventual collapse of our sun, or any number of other statistically unavoidable fates.
I’m just not willing to watch humanity commit suicide because of some runaway piece of technology. Now, you’re probably asking yourself, “OK, you’ve got me all scared, but what does this have to do with body modification? How does my navel ring protect me against homicidal robots?”
I believe that body modification’s role is first as a stalling tactic — to allow us to appreciate and focus on being corporeal and human — and second, as a preparatory tactic — to help us transition into homo superior. The preparatory element is of a dual nature. On one hand, by destroying the body we “distill” humanity, and on the other hand, by embracing the carnal body, we revel in it and appreciate its value.
Distilling humans: Destroying the Body
One of the strange paradoxes of the human is experience is that it’s often events steeped in pain or the negation of the body that lead us to transformative religious rapture (or, as the Lizardman put it in his latest column for the less spiritual, “life affirming” experiences). Outside of body modification one sees this in extreme trauma in the form of out of body experiences and near death experiences — whether one chooses a spiritual explanation or one more down-to-earth, the central symptom is the same: an affirmation of humanity.
In the world of BME, we see analogous experiences being explored in rituals such as suspension, play piercing, shamanic drug use, and even psychosexual CBT sessions. Again the end goal is the affirmation of humanity — by breaking down physical existence and leaving the essence of being, only the part of human that exists outside of or on top of our interaction with the outside world remains. I use the term “distilling humans” because it reminds me of the process of distillation which, through the use of a hostile and aggressive environment breaks a complex substance down into its pure and impure components. Body ritual allows us to experience life as a pure human, and in so doing gives us a new appreciation for humanity.
My hope is that if we are able to re-embrace this type of ritual on a cultural level that we will as a culture feel that being human is valuable — while I’m sure many people would make that claim already, I believe the average person currently understand it on at best an abstract level and has little first hand experience with it. This belief is evidenced by the structure of Western society and the lives its members live, all too eager to sacrifice these experiences in trade for convenience.
And, that lust for convenience is what sets the stage and builds the foundation for our replacement as our robotic slaves become not our masters, but our successors.
Revealing humans: Enjoying the Body
The other thing that separates humans from machines is our sexual nature; balls-deep sweaty fucking. While machines are already on the cusp of fully autonomous reproduction (manufacturing) and self-improvement, the possibility of their means of reproduction ever being a pleasure-driven cooperative process seems far-fetched. Humans on the other hand are, on a carnal level, little more than vessels created for the purpose of the replication and distribution of the ultimate parasite: our genes.
The experiences of body piercing, especially genital piercing, along with other body modifications is most commonly a sexual act, be it direct (by making sex feel better) or be it indirect (for example, self-beautifying acts as an element of mating behavior — that is, attracting sexual partners). In addition, the experience of being pierced, being tattooed, and the long term feeling of being modified is guttural — it revels in the tactile sensations of being alive. It encourages being to alive, to be animalistic, to know what it feels like to have a body and like it.
So much of Western society denies the body — we barely even exercise, the to point where our bodies fail and are kept alive by machines often solely because we’ve allowed them to atrophy. Two modern phenomena promise to pull us out of this apathy (and I believe we must embrace both), the first being body modification, which embraces the body in all its forms and sensations, and the second being pornography and the sexualization of culture, which encourages us to revel in physical experience without shame or guilt. Both of these push us to a state of being that results in a genuine appreciation for the symptoms of being biological.
Enjoying the body, coupled with distilling the body to appreciate our humanity, have an end result of putting value in human, rather than simply listing our general traits (intelligence, toolmaking, whatever) and considering them valuable in and of themselves.
Stalling Tactic or Preparatory Culture Shift?
Of course, none of the above actually stops the process — all it does is make us recognize that we are worth saving. As a result, it might increase public debate, or reduce the speed at which intelligent machines are handed power, but ultimately it’s simply a stalling tactic. As they say, “you can’t stop progress!”
Like I’ve already mentioned, the Luddite path, the rejection of technology altogether, is unlikely to be accepted, and in any case is doomed in the long term. The fact is that with humanity on the course it’s on now, monstrously intelligent machines will arrive, will continue to grow more powerful, and will eventually have a dominant voice, leading to an all-out war between biological and non-biological life.
We need to do one of two things (or both) — we need to either avoid this war, or we need to figure out how to win it.
One of the other side-effects of embracing body modification (and one that is not brought on by any other cultural phenomena) is that it encourages us to accept and explore a varied range of esthetic options, as well as a willingness to alter, modify, and even enjoy mutilating the human body in order to improve and widen our experience of living.
In order to avoid the human-robot war, we need to create other means of doing the things we desire the robots to do, and in order to win the human-robot war, we need humans to be more powerful and more adaptive than the robots. Both of these propositions need better humans. We need to improve humans — and isn’t that what body modification is all about? We just need to do it bigger. Body modification sets the stage for a culture that can accept such a transition, which will then allow us to spread out into space and across this incredibly gigantic universe — in which case even if intelligent machines are eventually evolved, we will have also reached a point where we can peacefully co-exist, or even exist totally separately should we choose to.
Don’t “Replace” Humans; Improve Them
Nature recently reported on experiments at the Shanghai Second Medical Univeristy by Hui Zhen Sheng in merging human DNA with rabbit DNA. The researchers successfully brought over one hundred of these chimeras to the blastocyst stage of growth (an early embryonic stage where stem cells are produced). In other experiments human neural tissue has been grown in rats, and I’m sure everyone knows about mergers of plants and animals resulting in glow in the dark rabbits and other bizarre creations. Scientists have created freeze-proof animals, disease resistant crops, and many other “improved” entities, and as we continue to explore and decode the genomes of both humans and other lifeforms our understanding and control over our genetic future and evolution grows exponentially.
The idea of creating chimeric humans is certainly no stranger to pop-culture, and more seriously, looms very close as a reality — although it faces massive political, religious, and ethical resistance from a wide range of sources, mostly from people with irrational attachments to biological stagnation. Certainly some people point out the valid dangers of genetic engineering, but being realistic, we’re at far less risk engineering humans than we are engineering super-crops which threaten to destroy our ecosystem and super-bacteria brought on by increasingly powerful antibiotics — both of which we are currently doing at an alarming rate (so even without a human-robot war we may desperately need to artificially evolve ourselves in order to survive).
As I mentioned before, the problem with the transhumanist notion of a dualist evolution that includes a human-robot merger (a la the miserable Cybermen of Doctor Who) is that it eventually replaces humans with machines — there is no real transition and I don’t believe we can say that these machines are still “us” or even our “children”. They are something new. Genetic engineering on the other hand — the idea of forcing the punctuation in punctuated equilibrium — results in not a new lifeform, but an improved lifeform which still carries our genetics and, on a more abstract level, still has a “human” soul.
As australopithecus begat homo habilis and then eventually homo sapiens, we do now have the option of inducing evolution and giving birth to homo superior. All we have to do is get over our attachment to the mundane definition of human that the average person clings to, and I believe that a willingness to embrace voluntary body modification of all forms is an excellent way to condition society to the most important idea of the 21st century: humans have reached a stage in their evolution where they have total control over who they become.
We now need to ask ourselves whether we want to be replaced, or whether we’d like to be improved… staying who we are now is no longer an option short of inducing an earth shattering apocalypse. I’ve been told that my recent columns are moving from political commentary to religious commentary, and I make no apologies for that — we, “the modified”, are finding ourselves in the role of missionaries. We need to accept that role, and spread our message and continue transforming society, for if we do not (along with help from many other subcultural groups — I’m certainly not so isolationist and egotistical to suggest that body modification is the only path to salvation… only one of many that must work together), humanity faces a terrible finale.
To recap, our role in this period of human transformation is threefold:
As such, our role is rather simple — all we have to do is be who we are and be decent to those around us. The public in general needs first to learn to accept us, and accept the idea of people controlling their biological destiny and form. They need to see that modified people are happy people who play a positive role in society, and by realizing that, become open to the idea of humanity becoming a beautiful and varied patchwork quilt — which also brings me to a warning. Most of all we need to resist the possibility of body modification becoming a uniform; unless we retain uniqueness and a broad range of expression this strategy will fall short and not achieve any of its goals (that said, I’m not talking about blind uniqueness for uniqueness’s sake — I’m talking about genuine expressions of self).
Of course, I could be wrong. The leading computer scientists, molecular scientists, nanotechnologists, and genetic engineers could all be wrong… Maybe we’ll get lucky and develop nothing more than incredibly powerful and useful tools that never achieve consciousness, let alone life that conflicts with our own. But we’re like a car driving at a hundred and fifty miles an hour in the dark without headlights — don’t you think it might be a good idea to put on our seatbelts?
So go out and be you — be proud of it, and help everyone you know explore human life in all its glorious forms! Take us to the future!
Recommended Supplementary Reading List