The Intersection of Man and
Machine (reprinted from an SFWA Bulletin Article)
By Edward McKeown
The intersection of Man and Machine has yielded countless stories in the field of science fiction and fantasy. From the early days of golems and other
inanimate base matter suddenly imbued with life, to the modern tales of self-sacrificing terminators, we the living, have sought companions from
unlife. We have created in fiction and reality simulacrums of ourselves, beings of steel, silicon and synthetic flesh.
Why do we do it? Why do we explore this heartless place? Why did Mary Shelly write Frankenstein? Why did Lang’s alluring robot Maria haunt the Metropolis of the future?
Why did Asimov devote a lifetime to the tales of the man-machine interface, even coming up with laws for a science that did not then exist?
Clearly we are seeking the “other” to hold up a mirror in which we can examine ourselves and our humanity, in the hope that we can better understand our existence and our place in the
universe. We project onto our steel brothers many human traits, including the sin of Cain, from Frankenstein to HAL, to see how they struggle with these moral, ethical and existential
dilemmas. Is Gort (from the original Day the Earth Stood still, not the mindless remake) an ethical being responsible for a killing two soldiers, or is he like the assassin Oswald’s gun, a mere device and guiltless? The robots of our dreams take these situations to new heights, sometimes
showing us the better side of ourselves as they face their fates without the frailty and fear that “man most mortal and doomed to die” may show in extremis. Who can forget the Iron
Giant offering himself to destruction in an effort to save the humans of the town and thereby defining, who he was…Superman.
In the late 20th century the intersection of man and machine developed a new address at the home of the cyborg, that being born of woman who non-the-less is part machine. The cyborg is not a protagonist using technology, he is the technology.
With this breakthrough come a host of emotional, moral and social themes for the writer to play with. This seems very timely with the XXX Olympiad coming, where for the first time a discussion has been raised about whether a Para Olympian, with his prosthetic replacements is in any sense disabled. His artificial limbs do not fatigue, nor stress like mere flesh and bone. His heart, relieved of the need to pump blood to such a distance, operates more effectively. We still think of prosthetics as emergency replacements for body parts lost to disease or mischance, but for how much longer? What if our crackberry, I-pod addicted, spinnerhead children begin to look at these mechanical replacements as improvements on their healthy limbs? Maybe there should be a red-light at this part of the intersection?
Why not go even further and dispose of the whole ad-hoc, fragile and doomed human body?
Evolution is a terrible manufacturer. It just gets you to breeding age. Period. Then it's done and cares not a jot if and when you die. But we care; we want to be immortal.
How many of us would opt for life “in a can?” This theme was explored by Neil R Jones in his Professor Jameson adventures in which the brain of a dead human is resurrected by aliens, who add him to their crew of sexless, robotic adventurers as they wander the universe in search of scientific discoveries.
In a more sophisticated treatment, Shirow's anime/manga “Ghost in the Shell” introduces us to Major Motoko Kusangi, a cyborg anti-terrorist warrior. Born a human, she was “decanted” at an early age into a cyborg body after an airplane crash. Who wouldn’t want to be her? Beautiful forever, linked into every net and database either directly, through ports in her body,
or by radio frequency. What she needs to learn, she downloads. She is strong enough to bend steel and leap from building to building, no red cape though. But she is troubled. There is nothing left of her original human body but some gray matter and she is not sure she believes even that. As she says to fellow cyborg, Batou, “Have you ever seen your own brain? How do you know it is there?” She does not know if she is the original human or a copy. In that question is the critical definition of who she is: a human and a free being, or a machine and property of the
We do not believe a human becomes less human for the loss of a limb or an eye, but what of when the whole body goes. How much can you lose before you escape humanity? If “you”--
your uniqueness, your “soul” or your “ghost” or however you define it--is not resident in your body, where then does it reside? For Kusanagi the answer is found when she loses her corporeal cyborg body and exists only as conception of herself in the Internet, the sea of data in
which the modern civilization floats.
The intersection of man and machine has thus become fraught with a new level of terror. Can the mind survive the mutilation of the body and if so to what degree? There are cautionary tales
in science fiction that lead us on several forays into this heartless part of the intersection. Where some, given the life of a Kusanagi or Professor Jameson, reject it in favor of the peace of true death or are forced through grim necessity into battle again and again to save the truly living from the crucible of war. I remember one SF short, probably lost in the mists of an Ace Double, of
a soldier activated only for combat, who has so forgotten his biological origins and his past, that he does not realize that he is attacking his own homeworld. Beware the yellow light in this intersection.
At the other side of the intersection, coming our way, are the artificial intelligences. Neither sons of Adams or Daughters of Eve but most often made to look such. Is R Daneel Oliva of the
Asimov’s “Caves of Steel” a person or a device? What of Data from Star Trek or the
Cylons of Battlestar Galactica? Is consciousness something that can be made just by adding layers of complexity? At what point in the mechanical process of laying down layers of silicon does God’s finger finally transmit the divine spark that makes the Terminator noble, Robbie the Robot of the Forbidden Planet lovable, or any of the robots of our dreams into friends
and lovers? Is it even possible that we can create something out of steel and synthetic that deserves the dignity of human rights?
Perhaps we won’t even control or intend this transition. Artificial Intelligence may generate not from our intention, but spontaneously from the sheer complexity of computer nets in the future, such as the Puppeteer in Ghost in the Shell, Skynet in Terminator or in the countless other examples where we design a tool and end up with unexpected company. Our own history is pretty bloody. Even while we struggled for a recognition of the concept of universal human rights, something our Roman, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian etc, ancestors would have regarded as absurd or even immoral, we have had the greatest blood-lettings in the history of our species in our World Wars. It might be a bit much to expect that this new intelligence would be gentle,
beneficent or even aware of other “life” so unlike it.
Today these are speculation in the works of hundred of writers, including me. Tomorrow, these may be questions that demand answers.
Edward McKeown Author of the Fenaday Chronicles, the adventures of Shasti Rainhell, and of Maauro my own contribution to this question of ethical existence. You can see my conception of this ancient android who patterned herself on a game simulation (image by Michael Church) below
I also edited Sha’Daa: Tales of the Apocalypse and the upcoming Sha’Daa: Last Call and have contributed to many anthologies.
Author Edward McKeown is a writer and editor