I am a scientist and academic by day, but by night I’m increasingly called upon to talk about transhumanism and the Singularity. Last year, I was science advisor to Caprica, a show that explored relationships between uploaded digital selves and real selves. Some months ago I participated in a public panel on “Mutants, Androids, and Cyborgs: The science of pop culture films” for Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ. This week brings a panel at the Director’s Guild of America in Los Angeles, entitled “The Science of Cyborgs” on interfacing machines to living nervous systems.
The latest panel to be added to my list is a discussion about the first transhumanist opera, Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers.” The opera is about an inventor and businessman, Simon Powers, who is approaching the end of his life. He decides to create a device (called The System) that he can upload himself into (hmm I wonder who this might be based on?). After Act 2, the entire set, including a host of OperaBots and a musical chandelier (created at the MIT Media Lab), become the physical manifestation of the now incorporeal Simon Powers, who’s singing we still hear but who has disappeared from the stage. Much of the opera is exploring how his relationships with his daughter and mother change post-uploading. His daughter and wife ask whether The System is really him. They wonder if they should follow his pleas to join him, and whether life will still be meaningful without death. The libretto, by the renown Robert Pinsky, renders these questions in beautiful poetry. It will open in Chicago in April.
These experiences have been fascinating. But I can’t help wondering, what’s with all the sudden interest in transhumanism and the singularity? Read More
It’s good to be back to blogging after a brief hiatus. As part of my return to some minimal level of leisure, I was finally able to watch the movie Moon (directed and co-written by Duncan Jones) and I’m glad that I did. (Alert: many spoilers ahead). Like all worthwhile art, it leaves nagging questions to ponder after experiencing it. It also gives me another chance to revisit questions about how technology may change our sense of identity, which I’ve blogged a bit about in the past.
A brief synopsis: Having run out of energy on Earth, humanity has gone to the Moon to extract helium-3 for powering the home planet. The movie begins with shots outside of a helium-3 extraction plant on the Moon. It’s a station manned by one worker, Sam, and his artificial intelligence helper, GERTY. Sam starts hallucinating near the end of his three-year contract, and during one of these hallucinations drives his rover into a helium-3 harvester. The collision causes the cab to start losing air and we leave Sam just as he gets his helmet on. Back in the infirmary of the base station, GERTY awakens Sam and asks if he remembers the accident. Sam says no. Sam starts to get suspicious after overhearing GERTY being instructed by the station’s owners not to let Sam leave the base.
The chasm between science and the humanities is nowhere more blatent than the lack of work on how science fiction is reprocessed and used by those of us securely strapped into the laboratory. It’s a topic that attracts some heat: Some scientists take to suggestions of inspiration between their creations and those in preceding Sci-Fi with the excitement of a freshman accused of buying their midterm essay off the internet. In Colin Milburn’s new work on ways of thinking about this interaction, he refers to Richard Feynman’s 1959 lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” This lecture is a key event in the history of nanotechnology. In it, Feynman refers to a pantograph-inspired mechanism for manipulating molecules. It turns out that he most likely got this idea from the story “Waldo” by Robert Heinlein, who in turn probably got it from another science fiction story by Edmond Hamilton. Rejecting the suggestion of influence, chemist Pierre Laszlo writes: “Feynman’s fertile imagination had no need for an outside seed. This particular conjecture [about a link between Feynman and Heinlein] stands on its head Feynman’s whole argument. He proposed devices at the nanoscale as both rational and realistic, around the corner so to say. To propose instead that the technoscience, nanotechnology, belongs to the realm of science-fictional fantasy is gratuitous mythology, with a questionable purpose.”
Science fiction is often associated with depictions of technology which, to quote Arther Clarke’s third law, is “so advanced that it seems like magic to us.” But science fiction’s other side is less about techno-gizmology and more about pushing us to think about what it is to be human. It asks what it would be like to live with different social norms (think of the group family structure in Caprica, or the androgynous society of Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness), different notions of identity (think of Star Trek’s “The Borg”, Avatar), and of reality itself (The Matrix).
The examples I’ve mentioned are from literature, movies, and TV. What about theater? Science fiction rarely shows up on the stage. But there are exceptions. This past week I was a guest instructor in a class called “Theater for Nerds” in Northwestern University’s summer program in theatre arts for high school seniors. It’s a class created by JC Aevaliotis for in-depth readings of plays that work at the intersection of art and another discipline (history, philosophy, science)–nerdy stuff indeed. I was invited to help discuss a play called On Ego, a collaboration between playwright Mick Gordon and neuropsychologist Paul Broks. The play is an exploration of different ideas about how we can go from what David Foster Wallace called the “2.8 pounds of electrified pate” that is our brain to something so vaunted as a sense of self. One idea, called “ego theory,” holds that there is an inner essence, denoted by “I”; the other idea, called “bundle theory” holds that there is no inner essence, but instead we are long series or bundle of interconnected sensations and thoughts. The underlying brain processes such as memories, feelings, thoughts, are sprinkled across diverse regions of the brain with no special point of convergence. Instead, we “come together in a work of fiction” – our brain is a story-telling machine, and the “self” is a story.
This year’s New York Musical Theater festival included I Come For Love, a musical comedy inspired by classic science-fiction B-movies. Claiming to be the real story of what happened at Roswell in 1947, the tongue-in-cheek plot revolves around a female alien (dubbed “Nine-Oh”) who has landed in her UFO in a bid to find out just what is this Earth thing called love.
An enjoyable romp, I Come For Love juxtaposis the “dissection’s too good for ‘em” sensibility of the classic 1950’s B-movies with the “save the innocent alien” ethos that came along in later decades. Nine-Oh and a hard-bitten reporter called (what else?) Scoop end up falling in love and must overcome diverse obstacles, viz, the U.S. Army and a mob of local townsfolk.
Which leads me to two questions: a) why are shows like I Come For Love so rare, i.e., why is there so little science fiction on the stage? and b) could humans and aliens ever interbreed?