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“The spiritual android within us” chapter 27 of “Technoshamans” (2010)

The creative evolution

The initial interest in the investigation on the relationship between man and machine was  stimulated by a French philosopher, a Nobel Prize winner for literature who inspired Marcel Proust and Deleuze.  In his “Creative evolution,” philosopher Henri Bergson outlines the “vital force” in the surprising way in which life acts. Bergson looks at the first spring of life on the planet as an impulse received at the source and still present in every form of life.

This spark is at the root of the tree of Evolution in whose trunk three different branches are hidden – vegetative torpor, instinct and reason. On one side plants, on the other insects, and still on the other, mammals. We know well who sits on the evolutionary step right below us, in the branch pursuing reason – it is those animals like monkeys and elephants, who can in certain contexts use an artificial instrument. In other words, they understand and are able to utilize technology. And right below, there are those who are at least able to recognize a man-made object – like a fox, who knows full well that a trap is a trap. But who is on the step right above us? There’s no step yet, maybe, but if up there, high up, in the darkness, there’s the light of intelligence which Evolution follows and chases, what will the next step be like and who will sit on it?

I mean, whose monkeys will we humans be? What man is building with technology, isn’t it maybe the next step of evolution?

It’s conscience, says Bergson, “the principal engine of evolution.” But if machines will be one day be able to download the “software of conscience,” reaching computational powers similar if not superior to the those of humans, how will the much-feared victory of machines over human kind not take place?

The day in which machines learn intuition from humans, and it’s not inconceivable this could happen soon, the countdown for us humans, if it hasn’t started already, will begin.

TECHNOSHAMANS NEW COVERAbout 160 years ago Samuel Butler was already writing that “it appears clear that we are creating our own successors…that we are providing them with powers superior to ours and that we are designing them, with ingenuous machineries of all types, with a power of self-regulation and automation which will be for them what intellect is for the human race.”

We humans, then, are not the owners of machines any more than we own fire or the wheel. Our new virtual setting, which we are creating on the other side of the screen is not controllable any longer from the natural world. 

One of the greatest programmers in history, Bill Joy, known as the “Thomas Edison of Internet” confirms it in an opinion piece in Wired magazine: “But now, with the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years, a new idea suggests itself: that I may be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species. How do I feel about this? Very uncomfortable.”

Since Kubrick’s “2001: Odyssey into Space” with the sentient computer Hal until the conflict of humans and the “computer soul” in “Matrix,” from the legend of the Golem, automaton programmed to work on the sacred Sabbath, until the legend of Frankenstein, the very human fear that the instrument substitutes his inventor is becoming more and more pressing, as the instrument begins to look more and more like its inventor.

Our metamorphosis

In my journey to the end of the world, until that finis terrae in Argentina and that India that borders on the Absolute, I’ve always observed the constant confrontation of man with his own animal instincts. Demons, obsessors, challenges to my brahmacharya period, the fights with Salome and having to face the most tedious aspects of life in all its difficulties were nothing but the unchecked expression of the animal nature within me.

Often, religions are just an attempt to calm that beast in order for us to become something higher – the famous transcendence. But instead, there are those who are convinced we are experiencing a return to bestiality. And this is what makes Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” a key-tale of modernity.

you are here smokeyScience also provides us with the illusion of being able to transcend the animal instincts that pervade us. As John Gray wrote in “Straw Dogs,” the imminent possibility of choosing a human being’s DNA, aspiring to immortality through hibernation or abandoning our body in order to enter virtual reality are all testament to the constant aspiration to control one’s self and the world – two fatal illusions, rooted in the even greater illusion of being, us humans, different from animals.

We are bestial sorcerer apprentices: “When technology enters in human life, be it fire, the wheel, the car, the radio, TV or Internet, it changes it in a way we will never fully comprehend,” Gray writes. Technology does not belong to humans: it is as old as the earth. The work done by ants is very similar to human agriculture: ant colonies are colonies just like the ones we humans have, and our cities are no less artificial than bee-hives, the shape of the Internet is no “less natural” than a spider-web. What remains to be established is who is the spider and who is the fly?

Are we are ourselves “technological mechanisms” invented by a primordial community of bacteria as a means to survival, as biologists Margulis and Sagan say? Or, as Richard Dawkins writes in “The Selfish Gene,” are we just instruments who pass on genetic software from one generation to the next?

We think we are at the center of the universe but instead we are only organic robots at the service of an end whose meaning escapes us because, maybe, we are only its slaves. Our own capacity for using rationality is exaggerated – Benjamin Libet has shown that the electrical impulse that stimulates action happens a half second before our conscious decision to act. At most, reason has the power of veto, since it can block an action.

So, who operates the software inducing to action? Nobody? God? The Techno-Moloch that Jacques Ellul talks about in “Technological Society”? A society invented by engineers who have lost all control and in which the Machine dictates rules and regulations as if it already had a mysterious identity?

Sex with robots

But if it were so, if we were only dangerous beasts who are using science to create the next generation of “Masters of the Earth,” in what way will this happen?

David Levy’s “Love + Sex with Robots” predicts the imminent development of a generation of robots who’ll become our life companions – after so many fights, finally the ideal husband and wife!

In our collective imagination, the first robots are born in the Czech Republic with the 1920’s theater work “Rossums Universal Robots” of Karel Capek – it’s the story of the automatons robota  (“forced labor” in Czech) who rebel against and decide to kill all human beings. A century before, in Japan, the karakuri dolls had already been invented. They were automated tea-carrying dolls. Since then we have cohabitated with robotics, knowing we are destined to cross our destiny with that of android objects that are more and more useful and more and more similar to us.

In “Robotherapy,” for example, psychological software is being developed to use automatons as therapists and “friends” for people with psychological problems aside from being helpful to those who have physical, emotional or cognitive handicaps. It’s about providing these “techno-nurses of the future” with the capacity to observe our daily life, studying what makes us happier and grateful, “feeling” our desires and satisfying them. It is not impossible. Because, as marvelous as it can seem, the human brain is a biological machine that can be analyzed and imitated.

Robot psychology is a highly complex minefield, but it cannot be stopped.

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What about love?

The robot-nurse may be acceptable by now, with some big reservations, but the robot-husband or the android-wife. How can one fall in love with an object? But this happens everyday, in the wildest technological consumerist era in human history.  And it is true that falling in love with the latest car model or computer is different from falling in love with a bed partner or a companion (not always, truth be told), but for how long still, in human evolution, will it be so?

Romantic attractions activate those “pockets” of our brain where you find a high concentration of dopamine receptors, that chemical substance associated with euphoria, cravings and addiction. A robot – writes Levy – could carry out a subtle fMRI scan on us while, for example, it compliments us on our haircut. According to our reaction, the robot will know if it is up the right alley in the direction of seduction and from there he will proceed until we fall in love with it. Don’t think of the robots you see in movies, with all that sharp and shining metal, we are talking about machines that not only have believable skin, but in whom an essence has been injected with normal pheromones, which our organoleptic receptors can find exciting without understanding why.

Their hands can massage us skillfully with a program designed for our specific preferences.

After all, aren’t we already – in the millions – falling in love with people we meet through a screen? That person on the other side of the chat is already so unreal and robotic since it “is” only words on a screen, or at most a low definition image seen through a webcam.

According to a statistic quoted by Levy, 45 per cent of English adolescents interviewed in a survey said they consider their computer a friend, while 60 percent love their computers, and16 per cent of adults and 13 per cent of children often speak to their computer. Thirty-four per cent of adults and 37 per cent of children say that by 2020 computers will be just as important to them as their family or friends.

A mechanical partner can be programmed to be what we need, with the skills to perform half that healthy little fight once in a while that can stimulate the game of making-up afterwards.

Are we facing a future where men will marry exclusively with a brand-name robot wife, furnished with a special receptacle to freeze the husband’s seed and send it to a sperm bank, where the same sperm can also be used by robot husbands to impregnate their human wives? Confusing, yet plausible.

WellAdjustedSwallowed by a the phantomat

The biological man can find himself naturally pushed out of existence since, according to the logics of evolution, a species rarely survives in a hostile space where there is a superior stage of evolution. How long, then, till the first generation of intelligent machines learns to self-reproduce in more and more advanced models?

Paul Virilio in “Ce qui arrive” theorizes that from Utopia we will transition into Ucronia, the end of human time. Maybe we have already exited time and meaning, our attention distracted and lost in that cobweb called “the media” thanks to whom – as Karl Kraus reminds us – a short circuit is generated, “leading the masses into believing that facts are told even before they happen –thus making them possible.”

“The immediacy, ubiquity and omniscience of video monitors and domestic computer terminals,” says Virilio, “take on the job of reinstating the equivocal methods that everyone employs in order to affirm his or her own dependency from what can make him or her escape him or herself – thing that, for a few brief instants, makes bodies inconsistent: dream, trance, hypnosis, orgasm, alcohol, drugs…” It is, he says, “the world marked of disappearance, in which the telepresence is substituted by not only the real presence of the artistic object, but also that of it’s buyer and seller.”

In “The perfect crime: has television killed reality?,” Jean-Baudrillard takes on the theme of the role that technology has in transforming our sense of the real: “…technique becomes a marvelous adventure […] it becomes the art of disappearance. Its finality would consist, more than in the transformation of the world, in an autonomous world, fully realized, from which we will finally be able to retire.”

The cyberspace offers a promise of eternity. Having overcome time and transcended the body, all that is left is our conscience, free to roam from server to server.

After all, Nietzshce also declared that “man is something which should be exceeded.” But not by the über-mensch, but rather by the über-computer.

Already in 1964, in its “Summa Technologiae,” Stanislaw Lem (also author of “Solaris”) imagined the advent of a “Phantomat,” a “fantasmatic generator” that allows humans to penetrate into simulated worlds. Lem imagined in advance the virtual reality now taking shape in avatar, social networks and videogames: “The fantasmatic offers a kind of experience that, because of its intimate character, is comparable only to dreams.”

And while shamans get lost in their trance or in their dances of a “separate reality,” which transcends spirituality, technology pushes our imagination in a generator of perfect illusions, a world made for us, mirror of a solitary hell which becomes more and more boring in the unpredictable reality with which we have to confront our selves today.

The spiritual machine

We are already a bit cyborg. We will mate with robots perfectly like us and, in certain aspects, better than us, and then we will lose our conscience in the Phantomat, in the virtual world where all that matters is conscience not the body.

But it is not necessarily true that androids should be seen as a species who overpower and crush us. There are those who, with a more trans-humanistic vision that borders on biopolitics – in tune with the tradition of Enlightenment – foresee instead that androids will only be our children, the evolutionary step borne from our ribs, literally. Or rather: we are the androids.

In “The Age of Spiritual Machines – When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence,” Ray Kurzweil for the first time maps – data in hand – the timing for what he calls “singularity,” when computers will reach the calculation capacity equal to that of a human. Calculating the exponential speed of technological progress, and the speed of growth of microprocessors, Kurzweil predicts the precise date of when that overtaking will happen. Measuring the growth of the capacity of calculation of a microchip from 1972 until today, Kurzweil says that every three years this capacity doubles and the rate of speed could accelerate – by 2045 computers will have a brain with the calculation capacity of humans. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll have a conscience, which is impossible according to the Catholic religion.

The copyright of conscience

It is difficult to understand what conscience is, first of all because the word “conscience” has many meanings, all of which are unclear. It is not demonstrated that machines will have one. But the contrary isn’t proven either. Actually, after years of studies no one has been able to prove whether there is a barrier which makes the “invention” of a programmable conscience for machines impossible. There are those who believe that conscience cannot be measured, but this is also a theory.

What science is trying to do is to study different phenomena where the word “conscience” is used. And from there we will also obtain something useful for humans. By programming an “embryo of conscience” in robots and observing how it evolves when it comes into contact with external agents, many more things could be learned about the development of our own conscience.

Domenico Parisi, robotics researcher for CNR, theorizes that since robots’ behavior is guided by a neuronal system very similar to ours, to plan an “insert of conscience” can be plausible. Robots can be programmed to surprise themselves to learn and register the difference between the tactile reaction of their “hand” when they touch an external object compared to when they caress a part of the robot itself – technically then, we can already talk of a primordial “sense of self” in the android.

The materialist’s approach believing that “mind is what mind does” brings us to an obvious conclusion – if we are capable of reproducing in minute detail the human brain into a “head” of a robot, this robot will have a conscience. It is a matter of time: who will copyright the first artificial conscience?

But if robots achieve a conscience, this does not necessarily mean they will want to immediately wipe us away from the face of the earth. Things could go differently, in a much more organic manner. Here’s how.

A possible solution to my back ache

Is a person wearing a pace-maker, a robot heart, still the same person? Of course, even more, he or she is actually stronger and will live longer, right?

Let’s imagine a man with hearing problems just like me, the way Kurzweil does in his book. A diagnostic test says I should have a transplant in my cochlea. With this chip inserted in my auditory channel I would be able to hear a whole range of sounds I had lost, from low to high frequencies. Am I still the same person? Of course.

Now let’s suppose that with a simple wire transfer I can ask the activation of an upgrade already inserted in the chip and thanks to which I can use the circuits of phonic recognitions that will allow me to hear two people whisper half a mile away from me, or more.

Meanwhile, I’m also offered something similar for my retina. Thanks to neural transplant technology I get installed in my corneas some retinal visualization screens to see virtual reality via wi-fi and I decide to try new transplants to make perception much sharper than normal. Am I still Carlo to my friends? Well, yeah.

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But now I realize I’m loosing my memory a bit, I don’t really remember all the names and details of things I’ve done. I’m offered a transplant of memory systems. Recollections that had become out of focus with time, are now clear again. Unfortunately, the scary and embarrassing moments I was trying to forget are clear too. But am I still Carlo? Obviously.

Well, I’ve gone through a few changes, but nothing shocking to my friends who may actually be impressed. So why stop here? I’m offered the possibility to scan my entire brain and neural system and to substitute it with electronic circuits that are much more capable, rapid and reliable. Furthermore, I can make a back up copy of everything, in case something happens to my body.

Now, Kurzweil says, let’s suppose that instead of gradually substituting every part of the body we do everything in one single operation. Does it change anything? The new Carlo is still the old Carlo, right?

Maybe, but now there are two Carlos, one is a back-up, the other the original body. But if my original organic body were eliminated with its backache and only the copy remained, my back-up, with all human functions substituted by an artificial body, then my conscience, the essence of Carlo, would still be the same, right? It behaves the same way, it thinks the same way, it acts the same way, it smells the same way and has the same consistency (duly recreated with nanotechnologies). And so, what would be wrong with it?

Let’s imagine that the operation would mandatorily eliminate and destroy my body in order to have a durable and we could say eternal copy. How many would dare turn it down? With an android body my damn back would not hurt any more, nor all the nuisances I’ve narrated in these pages.

The spark born millions of years ago, that Bergsonian “vital force,” which has been passed on through cells, plants, fish, amphibious beings, mammals until humans, thrown in chase of rational development, would suddenly transform itself in the last electric shock that turns on the Carlo android for whom, after all human bodies have disappeared, the antropic shape of the body would not have any meaning, him (me?) having become only conscience and thus able to join all the other consciences under a grand advaitic Self, a network of spiritual servers maybe comparable only to a technological Nirvana.

Demonstrating, thus, that Technology and Spirituality integrate all too well and can easily do without our carnal Humanity.

(This is a chapter from “Technoshamans: Between spirituality and technology – A journey to the end of the world to cure a chronic back ache” which can be purchased clicking here).

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