Saturday, 2 February 2013

Manipulated Path: Are We Human?

It was probably the moment when The Killers lost the goodwill of the music world: justifying an awkward lyric by blaming Hunter S Thompson. Yet the question - are we biological entities with the ability to make choices, or are we merely moving to a pre-ordained rhythm not of our own making - has bothered philosophers for centuries. While the Law makes the assumption that we have complete agency, the number of people having to work on Saturday suggests that Free Will is a luxury at best, an illusion at worst.

Manipulated objects don't have free will, by definition. Although my interest in determinism is mainly to see whether I can blame external forces for my inability to complete the novel, a more thoughtful analysis can be found in manipulate. Murray Wason, one of Glasgow's dynamic wave of Live Artists, is wondering whether the Automaton is a better description of the human, Cloud Eye Control have a vision of the cyborg and Aalterate ponders the boundaries of the body.

The relationship between human and robot ties in nicely with the whole free will versus determinism routine. Philip K Dick tried to question the exact line between human (being a Christian, of sorts, Dick saw the possession of a soul as being crucial) and machine in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In the film version, the robots are sometimes more compassionate and more lively than the humans building them, and if consciousness of death is a distinctly human quality... hang on... that's another essay...

Wason's Automaton sets its course for a putative future, where the machine takes over the mundane tasks and the body is stuffed full of mechanical contraptions. The tag-line "how do we know this heart is real?" hits the sweet spot between heart as biological organ and metaphor for love, with Wason considering the role of the emotions in a world dominated by mechanistic innovation.

Cloud Eye Control are a little more optimistic. Two of their pieces look at triumphs of technology: Ocean Flight recasts Charles Lindenbergh's trans-Atlantic journey into a collaboration between human and machine. Lindenbergh becomes an early version of the cyborg, his relationship to his airplane becoming transformative. Here, the machine enables human achievement and lends transcendence in an almost spiritual ritual.

Aalterate, part of the FAST FILM reel isn't quite so directly interested in the man-machine line, but it does provide a rapid glimpse at the problems of maintaining physical boundaries. And that's a theme within the analysis of the human-robot dualism.

I'm sorry. When I think about the differences between humans and machines, I am always trying to find the line between what counts as human, that is biological, and robotic - mechanical.

There's a traditional idea that the human is easy to define: born through sexual reproduction, made from organic materials, likes a drink, feeds on more organic material: throw in a few ideas about spirituality, maybe a specific relationship to the divine, or the ability to make free choices. And the robot - they might look human, but they are made in a factory, get confused by contradictions (the best way to face down a killer robot is to ask it what love is) and don't have a soul or any of that gubbins. Every so often, they try to take over the world, releasing that humans are inferior.

Unfortunately, the post-modernists got in on the act. The previously simple demarcations were blurred. Once organ replacements could be mechanical, and computer programmes had a degree of AI, making decisions for themselves, the boundary between human and robot blurred. We are all cyborgs when we use a mobile phone, man.

Going the other way, biologists suggested that the way the human body works makes it pretty much an automaton. On the one hand, we are transforming into cyborgs, which is kind of cool. On the other, we always were robots, which sucks.

Then Hunter S got in on the act, wondering whether humans were being trained by society, and were losing free will.

All of which is grand for thinking about, and gives me a blog that reads like a wikipedia entry on freewill written by someone who took too much LSD in the 1960s. However, there are human organisations that rely on a clear definition of what it means to be human. The Law, for example, assumes that a person has complete agency and is responsible for their actions.

If we are robots, the legal system is punishing people for actions that they have no control over.

Understanding whether our mechanical future is liberating, as Ocean Flight implies, or slightly more confusing, pace Wason, is more than just an intellectual exercise. It provides the foundation for social change. A clear grounding in the nature of humanity is crucial for the ongoing evolution of the species within society.

The votes aren't in yet, but the debate is too serious to leave to academics - they are good, but have their own bias towards reason. Art, fortunately, has the capacity both to bring people together and present an argument in emotional and intellectual terms.

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