What can we learn from the film Ghost in the Shell about human augmentation and the future?

A short excerpt from chapter seven of Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi-Movies

Source: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies explores the complex dynamics between emerging technologies and society through twelve science fiction movies. These excerpts comes from the chapter that focuses on the 1995 Japanese Anime movie Ghost in the Shell.

Through a Glass Darkly

On June 4, 2016, Elon Musk tweeted: “Creating a neural lace is the thing that really matters for humanity to achieve symbiosis with machines.”

This might just have been a bit of entrepreneurial frippery, inspired by the science fiction writer Iain M. Banks, who wrote extensively about “neural lace” technology in his Culture novels. But Musk, it seems, was serious, and in 2017 he launched a new company to develop ultra-high-speed speed brain-machine interfaces.

Musk’s company, Neuralink, set out to disrupt conventional thinking and transform what is possible with human-machine interfaces, starting with a talent-recruitment campaign that boldly stated, “No neuroscience experience is required.” Admittedly, it’s a little scary to think that a bunch of computer engineers and information technology specialists could be developing advanced systems to augment the human brain. But it’s a sign of the interesting times we live in that, as entrepreneurs and technologists become ever more focused on fixing what they see as the limitations of our biological selves, the boundaries between biology, machines, and cyberspace
are becoming increasingly blurred.

The movie Ghost in the Shell is set in a future where technologies like those Musk and others are working on are increasingly finding their way into society, and into people. It was released in 1995, and builds on a Japanese manga series that dates back to the 1980s. Yet, despite its age, it’s remarkably prescient in how it uses increasing integration between people and machines to explore what it means to be “human” in an age of technological augmentation. Not surprisingly, some of the tech looks a little outdated now: In 1995, the internet was just finding its global feet, Wi-Fi had yet to become ubiquitous, cloud computing (never mind “fog computing”) wasn’t a thing, and Google hadn’t even been formed. Yet, as advances in human-machine interfaces continue to barrel forward at lightning speed, the issues Ghost explores are perhaps more relevant now than ever ..

Plugged In, Hacked Out

… In 2014, the neurosurgeon Phil Kennedy underwent elective brain surgery, not to correct a problem, but in an attempt to create a surgically implanted brain-machine interface. Kennedy had developed a deep brain probe that overcame the limitations of simply placing a wire in someone’s brain, by encouraging neurons to grow into a hollow glass tube. By experimenting on himself, he hoped to gain insight into how the parts of the brain associated with language operate, and whether he could decode neural signals as words. But he also had a vision of a future where our brains are intimately connected to machines, one that he captured in the 2012 novel 2051, published under the pseudonym Alpha O. Royal.

In this brief science fiction story, Kennedy, a.k.a. Alpha O. Royal, describes a future where brains can be disconnected from their bodies, and people can inhabit a virtual world created by sensors and probes that directly read and stimulate their neurons. In the book, this becomes the key that opens up interplanetary travel, as hurling a wired-up brain through space turns out to be a lot easier than having to accompany it with a body full of inconvenient organs. Fantastical as the book is, Kennedy uses it to articulate his belief that the future of humanity will depend on connecting our brains to the wider world through increasingly sophisticated technologies; starting with his hollow brain probes, and extending out to wireless-linked probes, that are able to read and control neurons via light pulses.

Amazingly, we are already moving closer to some of the sensing technology that Kennedy envisions in 2051. In 2016, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley announced they had built a millimeter-sized wireless neural sensor that they dubbed “neural dust.” Small numbers of these, it was envisaged, could be implanted in someone’s head to provide wireless feedback on neural activity from specific parts of the brain. The idea of neural dust is still at a very early stage of development, but it’s not beyond the realm of reason that these sensors could one day be developed into sophisticated wireless brain interfaces. And so, while Kennedy’s sci-fi story stretches credulity, reality isn’t as far behind as we might think.

There’s another side of Kennedy’s story that is relevant here, though. 2051 is set in a future where artificial intelligence and “nanobots” (which we’ll reencounter in chapter nine) have become a major threat. In an admittedly rather silly plotline, we learn that the real-life futurist and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil has loaned the Chinese nanobots which combine advanced artificial intelligence with the ability to self-replicate. These proceed to take over China and threaten the rest of the world. And they have the ability to hack into and manipulate wired-up brains. Because everything that these brains experience comes through their computer connections, the AI nanobots can effectively manipulate someone’s reality with ease, and even create an alternate reality that they are incapable of perceiving as not being real.

The twist in Kennedy’s tale is that the fictitious nanobots simply want global peace and universal happiness. And the logical route to achieving this, according to their AI hive-mind, is to assimilate humans, and convince them to become part of the bigger collective. It’s all rather Borg-like if you’re a Start Trek fan, but with a benevolent twist.

Kennedy’s story is, admittedly, rather fanciful. But he does hit on what is probably one of the most challenging aspects of having a fully connected brain, especially in a world where we are seceding increasing power to autonomous systems: vulnerability to hacking.

Some time ago, I was speaking with a senior executive at IBM, and he confessed that, from his elevated perspective, cybersecurity is one of the greatest challenges we face as a global society. As we see the emergence of increasingly clever hacks on increasingly powerful connected systems, it’s not hard to see why.

Cyberspace — the sum total of our computers, the networks they form, and the virtual world they represent — is unique in that it’s a completely human-created dimension that sits on top of our reality (a concept we come back to in chapter nine and the movie Transcendence). We have manufactured an environment that quite literally did not exist until relatively recently. It’s one where we can now build virtual realities that surpass our wildest dreams. And because, in the early days of computing, we were more interested in what we could do rather than what we should (or even how we should do it), this environment is fraught with vulnerabilities. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’ve essentially built a fifth dimension to exist in, while making up the rules along the way, and not worrying too much about what could go wrong until it was too late.

Of course, the digital community learned early on that cybersecurity demanded at least as much attention to good practices, robust protocols, smart design, and effective governance as any physical environment, if people weren’t going to get hurt. But certainly, in the early days, this was seasoned with the idea that, if everything went pear-shaped, someone could always just pull the plug.

Nowadays, as the world of cyber is inextricably intertwined with biological and physical reality, this pulling-the-plug concept seems like a quaint and hopelessly outmoded idea. Cutting off the power simply isn’t an option when our water, electricity, and food supplies depend on cyber-systems, when medical devices and life-support systems rely on internet connectivity, where cars, trucks and other vehicles cannot operate without being connected, and where financial systems are utterly dependent on the virtual cyber worlds we’ve created.

It’s this convergence between cyber and physical realities that is massively accelerating current technological progress. But it also means that cyber-vulnerabilities have sometimes startling real-world consequences, including making everything from connected thermostats to digital pacemakers vulnerable to attack and manipulation. And, not surprisingly, this includes brain- machine interfaces.

In Ghost in the Shell, this vulnerability leads to ghost hacking, the idea that if you connect your memories, thoughts, and brain functions to the net, someone can use that connection to manipulate and change them…

Read more in Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies, available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobel, Indie Bound, and elsewhere.

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Andrew Maynard

Andrew Maynard

Scientist, futurist & Professor of Global Futures at ASU. Author of Future Rising and Films from the Future. Writing about tech, society, & the future