What does it mean to be human?

I’m doing a sermon later on this topic so I thought I would ruminate on the subject for a while today. The idea came to me as I was browsing YouTube for some long-form music as background to compose a blog post to. I hit on a 6 hour mix of Yoko Kanno anime soundtracks, and there were the opening and closing themes for all the GITS TV shows in a row, which got me thinking on the initial premise of the original GITS manga and movie, “What makes us human? And at what point do we cease to be human and become something else?”

Where this has resonance with me is in some cultures I am no longer considered human, having been dead for a while. I’m still me, but because of the trauma that killed me I’m not the same person I was before I got killed. So, what am I? I still feel human, most days. OK a very cranky and uncomfortable human, but close enough for government work. I still love, I still feel pleasure and pain, and I still do not function well before coffee. So, again, what am I? I’m not a “zombie”, because I don’t think of brains as a snack food 😀 (zombie in quotes because the modern zombie would be a ghoul in D&D). I mean sure I came back from the dead, but my body didn’t have time to get cold before I rebooted so it doesn’t make me a zombie.

In GITS (Ghost In The Shell) people have varying degrees of cybernetic augmentation, from enhanced eyes and hindbrains all the way to full prosthetic bodies. Part of the conflict in the show is hackers taking over the cybernetic parts and making people do things they would not do of their free will. One episode dealt with a person who died while hooked to a computer trading stock and his consciousness merged with the computer. What do we call that consciousness that remains alive in a computer after the body that spawned it dies off?

GITS was science fiction, but it is a future we get closer to every day. There are paralyzed people walking around today wearing powered exoskeletons controlled by their minds. The interface is currently too exhausting to maintain for more than a short time, but that is a problem that is getting solved in beta, not a fundamental flaw in the system. It won’t be too long before people who used to be in a wheelchair are walking around, riding the bus, and going to work just like the rest of us. Are they still human?

Currently western culture still considers people like me as human, as we are still walking around in the OEM body. But what if they start putting brains like mine into other bodies than the ones we were born with? I could be a literal car, my brain controlling electric power steering, brakes, and a fly-by-wire throttle, all of which exist on cars today. The only thing missing at the moment is the ability to keep a brain alive outside a body, and the interfaces for direct control. Or in other words, when the interfaces are ready the cars to put them in already exist. We could just plug in and go. I want that, and I don’t want that, both at the same time. I mean on the one hand that is a literal dream of mine, to be one with my car. On the other hand having worked in the computer industry for a few years, do I want to bet my life on something as unreliable as my phone or laptop?

But the reality is that when it comes time to upload our minds into computers it won’t be with complex single CPU systems, it will be something like the experimental computer from back in the ’80s that had 64K (65536) Z80 CPUs and 1024 byte static RAM memories in a 3D parallel net, only much more complex than that in terms of numbers of CPUs but much simpler in terms of the actual CPUs and the amount of memory per CPU, I’m thinking millions of 4-bit CPUs running maybe 128 bytes of RAM and an equal amount of Flash ROM that we program as we load ourselves into the computer. Would I still be Me without the chemical “interference” from the rest of my body to invoke things like “fight or flight”? How much of our emotions are literally only hormonal responses from our bodies? And if this computer is in a mobile package, would people become literal cars, like I was accused of not being when I was confronted by drivers on the street while I rode my bicycle.

The world is changing, and we need to try to stay ahead of those changes. Are you leading, keeping up, or just trying to not get left behind?

PSA, Opus the Unkillable Badass Poet

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