The future is cyborgs

It’s March 2017 and the robot apocalypse is definitely coming. We’ve been warned about the “Automation Invasion: Robots Are Coming for YOUR Job”. Nationalists worry that “Robots will take a third of BRITISH JOBS by 2030”, although there’s some relief that “The U.S. will be HIT WORSE by job automation”. The numbers involved are growing larger and larger: apparently “TEN MILLION jobs could be replaced by robots in next 15 years”. The conclusion: “TECHNOLOGY is killing jobs, and only technology can save them”. By now the panic is really setting in. What about the moral value of hard work? Will we all become lazy benefit scroungers? How will we eat? Where will the money come from? What will we do all day? How will we live? Will society collapse in a drug fuelled orgy or feckless boredom?

But against this general backdrop of panic and crisis there are some who are more positive about a world where all our needs will be met by automated production. For a large part of human history work was seen as a necessity which should be avoided at all costs. Going back nearly 2400 years, Aristotle argued that the highest human good was philosophic contemplation, something which mere ‘work’ would get in the way of. He was very clear about what this meant: a privileged elite who were free to contemplate the mysteries of the world because production was taken care of by slaves. The aristocrats of Europe replaced slaves with feudal serfs or the working class and, by the 19th century, some socialists were dreaming of substituting them for automated (or infinitely more efficient) production.

People on the left of politics who celebrate contemporary automation tend to claim that, unlike previous technological revolutions, this time technology will emancipate everyone. But so far the geopolitical dimension remains significant. The rise of the knowledge economy is, at least partially, a myth. We still live in a world of manufacturing and heavy industry, it’s just that that work is now done out-of-sight and out-of-mind in the Global South. And even in the UK it’s not clear that technology will necessarily be needed to replace workers. As Amazon and Sports Direct have proved, when you can make enormous profits by exploiting cheap labour you don’t need expensive machines. But despite all of these caveats, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there is something different this time round.

Even those most strongly in favour of automation recognise that this is a dangerous moment. The fact that Allen Greenspan, the man who chaired the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, dictating a neoliberal agenda from an unelected position, also speaks excitedly of full automation should be a warning in itself. Four years ago, he wrote of a future where “all we have left is a small handful of especially talented people who can create and operate the newer technology”. As Stephen Holmes points out in his review for the LRB, this ‘we’ is worth considering. The future he imagines is one in which the rich elite are liberated from the challenge of employing anyone. A basic income guarantees that there is still a market for goods; meanwhile a narrow band of people work on the complex algorithms that manage production and an even narrower band of people own that automated capital. This is a serious political and economic challenge but, ultimately, it is nothing new. Just like at the turn of the last century, the fundamental issue is who owns the means of production and automation will do little to change that.

Much of the discussion of robots and automation revolves around a binary opposition of humans vs machines. This is history in the mould of The Terminator and Matrix films. But rather than an either/or, may be we’re actually heading towards a fusion of the two; part human, part machine, all cyborg. For those of us with hearing aids, prosthetic limbs or pace-makers this is already a real part of our lives. But going beyond using machines in a curative, medical context takes us into the brave new world of trans-humanism. Working in the intersection of plastic surgery, nano-bio-technologies and robotics, trans-humanists dream of using technology to overcome our biological limitations: implanting electrodes in brains, modifying eyes to see in ultraviolet, editing genetic sequences, and eliminating ageing.

There are many different parts of the trans-humanist movement. Genesis P. Orrige and Lady Jaye’s ‘pandrogyne project’ saw them both undergo huge amounts of plastic surgery so that they came to resemble each other. They were attempting to transform themselves into a third being (the ‘pandrogyne’) which united them both. After Lady Jaye’s death Genesis continues to refer to themselves in the plural and has said that “Genesis continues to represent the amalgam Breyer P-Orridge in the material ‘world’ and Lady Jaye represents the amalgam Breyer P-Orridge in the immaterial ‘world’ creating an ongoing interdimensional collaboration”. This fusion of queer theory, spirituality and performance art is a long way from the Silicon Valley side of the movement. There the geographic proximity between Los Angeles and San Francisco has led to a combination of science fiction technology with healthy living and self-improvement. Regular exercise, raw-vegan smoothies, smart study drugs and a job at Facebook. This is trans-humanism not as a spiritual quest to test the boundaries of gender and love, but as a way of improving human capabilities.

But, for some, even this is too limited an attack on the opposition of human and machine. Even if I coated my bones with aluminium compounds and rewired my nervous system to improve my reaction speed, I would still be modifying my body. The next step is to completely dissolve the notion of spatially bound consciousness. That is what is so scary about HAL 9000, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey (or HAL’s modern equivalent: AUTO from WALL-E): a consciousness that is distributed across an entire computer system with no fixed physical form. For many trans-humanists ‘mind uploading’ is our final destiny. Imagine uploading your conscious mind onto a machine where it would live for ever as a ghost, drifting around the internet and constructing whatever form it fancied: cyborg, electric kettle, iPhone, etc.

These ideas throw up all sorts of philosophical questions about personal identity and what we mean by consciousness. These are not entirely new. We already know that outside forces can shape our most inner consciousness. About 50% of people globally may be infected by a parasite which lives in cat poo (toxoplasma gondii) and which has profound neurological effects, including increased risk taking and various affective disorders. We also know that our identity is not fixed in uniquely human flesh. Each humans is an ecosystem which includes organisms from many different species in continuous interaction. But at the moment the philosophical implications of these scientific discoveries remain distant from our working lives and rarely trouble the common sense notion that “I am who I am”. However, as we increasingly collapse the boundaries between human and machine, these issues will become part of everyday existence in unpredictable ways. So if the economic questions raised by automation are nothing new, may be these philosophical ones will be its real legacy.

In the 1950s, philosopher and committed Nazi, Martin Heidegger, argued that modern technology (based on modern physics) was dangerous because it would lead us to see the natural world and other humans as a standing reserve of materials waiting to be used. Today’s technology (based instead on algorithms and networks) will transform us again, but this time its most profound impact will be on our sense of self. Abstract philosophical discussions about what counts as ‘human’, who counts as ‘consciousness’ and whether I am the same person that I was yesterday will become part of real life. Artificial thought experiments will become everyday interactions.

Moreover, this philosophical impact will be structured by politics in a way that Heidegger would never have recognised. At a material level, the technology that trans-humanists dream of is extraordinarily expensive and so will work to exacerbate existing health inequalities. And, as health shapes so much of the rest of our lives, this growing inequality will soon spread to other areas. At an ideological level, that same elite will also be able to control how we frame and navigate these crucial questions about consciousness and identity. There is precedent for this. In the 19th century, Darwin’s scientific revolution was seized upon to develop theories of ‘scientific racism’ which quickly spread across a society where black and brown people were largely excluded from the magazines and publications which dominated the public sphere. Today, as we struggle to articulate a new sense of self made in confrontation and synthesis with computer intelligence, the conversation is already largely dominated by wealthy men from Silicon Valley. And they seem totally unaware of these political dimensions. Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, multibillionaire and member of Trump’s transition team was asked a few years ago about the effect of these technologies on inequality in life-expectancy. He dismissed it entirely, saying that “the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead”.

Unless we can find some way of democratising those discussions, then the liberatory potential that cyborg feminists, socialists and others see in trans-humanism will be lost. Niche performance art and lefty think-pieces aren’t an answer to that problem. And given the current state of science journalism, it’s not clear the mainstream press is either. One possibility is that the Internet might provide access to information and a space for discussion which can help to undermine existing inequalities and enable all of us to shape the coming fusion of human and machine. There are many reasons to think that this is implausible, but it makes for a nice conclusion.