Last night I watched Ridley Scott’s latest science fiction film Prometheus, unsure what to expect considering the fact that I’ve never seen any of the Alien films. While I enjoyed the film for the most part, I was mostly intrigued and fascinated by one character: David, the cold and calculating yet charismatic android. I’m not sure whether it was Michael Fassbender’s excellent acting (and handsome face) or the premise of a humanoid robot living and serving humans, but David’s complicated characterization and motivations carried the film for me. And it got me started thinking about the intersection between man and machine.
Every day human technology expands further into our everyday lives. Newer tech like Google Glass and Oculus Rift promise a future of immersive virtual reality while advances in artificial intelligence and robotics presage a future in which machines walk among us. Slowly but surely, the gap is narrowing between where our bodies end and technology begins. So it makes sense that anxiety about the consequences of this synthesis between man and machine manifests in our media.
The last time I saw a movie in theaters (I think it was Man of Steel) I was amazed by this common thread running through many of the previews: Pacific Rim, in which humans join minds with massive robot warriors to battle an alien invasion; Ender’s Game, where a young boy interacts with a virtual game interface in order to wage a war for mankind; Elysium, in which Matt Damon’s character becomes fused with a robotic exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength. In each preview, the theme was clear–can humans maintain their humanity when their bodies and minds become fused with machines?
This is hardly a new topic for film (Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction masterpiece Bladerunner examined this very theme), but the rate of movies and TV shows exploring the consequences of man-machine synthesis has definitely increased in recent years. Battlestar Galactica thoroughly explored this theme throughout its four season run. In Battlestar, the thing that makes the “skin-job” Cylons so terrifying is that they are physically indistinguishable from humans, unlike their “toaster” counterparts, who are obviously non-human robots. Thus, the question arises: what actually makes a human, well, human? When an android walks, talks, thinks and feels like a human, is it human or machine? What is the difference, really? Is there some indefinable spark, some kind of soul, that separates man from machine?
Doctor Who often addresses this question as well. Both the Daleks and the Cybermen, two of the Doctor’s recurring nemeses, exist at the crossroads between the biological and the mechanical. The Daleks were once alien creatures of biological origin, but they were engineered to feel no emotion save hate for all species other than Dalek. Now, they travel the universe plugged into their mechanical exoskeletons, exterminating all who stand in their way. Similarly, the Cybermen were once humans whose brains were removed from their bodies and implanted in robotic bodies. They see the synthesis of human brain with technology to be the ultimate destiny for humanity. In both of these cases, when biology marries technology, the result is a loss of humanity, and ultimately, death.
In all of these cases, the central anxiety about the synthesis between man and machine is this: does technology separate man from his humanity? And, if so, what defines that humanity in the first place? Emotions like compassion, love, mercy, pity–these are the hallmarks of humanity. But is there something else, too, some inexplicable quintessence of humanity that human-machine hybrids can never encapsulate?
I think that we should spend less time worrying about the ways technology makes us less human and focus instead on the ways in which we can bring our innate humanity to the technology we create. Because anything we create is, at the end of the day, a reflection of who we are as a species. And we get to choose what that is, because we are the architects of our characters as well as our destinies.
What are your thoughts on the synthesis of man and machine? Do you have a favorite fictional android or cyborg? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!