Fall in Love with Data Science and Technology via These Three Anime
Consider these three selections your gateway drug
Yes, it might seem weird to mention anime, data science, and technology in the same breath. But you might be surprised to learn that there’s quite a deep connection across these domains. I am interested in all three (along with reading, listening to jazz, R&B or classical music, and watching sci-fi — all good ways to relax in the evening at home).
One thing that’s great about certain anime is that they are heavily influenced by literature, philosophy, and psychology. If you’re interested in these topics you’ll find many references to them, including direct inspiration from some of the most influential thinkers in human history.
In this piece, I want to give you a run down of three key anime that you might want to start with — and don’t worry, I won’t include any spoilers. I’ll only run through the necessary framework and key references in each case.
Let’s get started!
Using mathematics to determine “criminality”
We’ll kick off with Psycho-Pass, a psychological science fiction anime set in a dystopian future. In this society, people are governed by a complex algorithm that can precisely compute the probability of an individual to commit a crime. The name of this algorithm is the Sybil System. At a high-level, it’s able to identify the “potential criminality” of an individual by considering several factors including their genetic predisposition to criminal activity, their family history, and the environment in which they grew up. There is also the possibility that the victim of a crime becomes a criminal themselves — meaning that his or her rate of criminality could significantly increase.
Thanks to this algorithm, police can identify a potential criminal well before they commit a crime. So, based on the rate of criminality computed by said algorithm, police can kill or arrest a criminal prior to a crime being committed as part of a prevention effort.
As you might expect, the algorithm seems to be a perfect solution — well, until Shogo Makishima comes along. He’s an art professor with anarchist tendencies; tendencies that are particularly directed towards the Sybil System itself. Makishima is a highly cultured and mild-mannered man. But he wants to destroy the Sybil System, believing that it wrests control from the individual — it is a deterministic system that clearly provides no space for alternative outcomes, or any possibility for individual to change and choose a different path. Makishima is fully prepared to break the law in order to change this state of affairs. But ironically, the Sybil System is unable to compute his rate of criminality accurately — in fact, it classifies him as a “good and normal” citizen with a criminality rate near zero.
This gives Makishima enormous power. He — unlike other people — can break seemingly any societal taboo, and can behave in ways that apparently betray his genetic predisposition, his family history, and the environment in which he grew up. Perhaps Shogo Makishima exists on a different level of consciousness compared to others in society.
Psycho-Pass is truly fascinating in terms of its ability to challenge ideas about the limits of data science and A.I. as they relate to human behaviour — especially when it comes to predicting what humans are likely to do in the future based on their past. It also raises serious — and relevant — questions around the ethical implications of leveraging data-driven A.I. systems to make decisions that impact human beings in the real world.
2 GHOST IN THE SHELL
The impact of transhumanism on our fundamental humanity
Ghost in the Shell is the famous, cult-classic cyberpunk anime. Even if you aren’t an anime watcher, you’re likely to be familiar with it, if only due to its massive influence on pop culture at large (if you’ve seen The Matrix, then you’ll find a great deal of GitS DNA there). It’s a future built largely around the idea that science is able to extend human evolution through artificial means. It is the era of superhumans, and a realisation of the expectations of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.
In this world, transhumanism reigns supreme. Individuals have complete control over their personal advancement thanks to the ability to artificially modify both their minds and bodies. The downside of this is that both of these entities can be hacked by others as well.
The term “transhumanism” was coined by Julian Huxley, the brother of Aldous Huxley, known for his visionary novel Brave New World. Transhumanism is fundamentally about the idea that humanity can be improved by leveraging science and technology — even up to the point of using eugenics.
Ghost in the Shell’s protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is the commander of Japan’s Public Security Organisation 9 (Section 9), which primarily concerns itself with fighting cybercrime. Given the nature of the world (and that, for example, consciousness itself is independent of the body and is represented by code that is fully transferrable over digital networks), it’s no surprise that all of the Major’s decisions are influenced by algorithms that compute the potential effectiveness of each possible action.
Major Kusanagi is not unlike everyone else in society, in the sense that her mind and body are a mix of both natural and artificial entities — her digitised consciousness exists independent of her robotic body. Despite the highly-artificial nature of Kusanagi’s being, she still displays many fundamentally human psychological traits. This prompts us to wonder what humanity actually is. If your flesh-and-blood body can be replaced by a disposable machine, and your consciousness itself is an ethereal (and theoretically immortal) digital construct, then what is it that makes you human? Do you have an eternal soul (as thinkers like Carl Jung and James Hillman may argue)? Or is your existence entirely limited to the transient (and hackable/deletable) lines of code that make up your digital consciousness?
3 DEATH NOTE
Finding patterns in chaos
Death Note is a little different to the previous two examples in one important aspect: it doesn’t have anything to do with A.I., machine learning, or anything like that. Rather, it’s more of a psychological thriller — and it certainly is important to consider for anyone who works with data. Why? Because it deals heavily with concepts around data analysis, and especially finding relevant patterns in data in order to solve problems.
The two main protagonists — the student, Light Yagami, and the mysterious detective L Lawliet — tend to solve problems almost as though they were data scientists. They use data to try to anticipate (and understand) the tactics of their adversary.
Both L and Light are in competition, too, each trying to best each other when it comes to defeating their adversaries. It’s like a grand chess game between two powerful minds. The approach reminds me of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The techniques utilised here aren’t so far removed from the methodical steps a data scientist follows when they are looking for meaningful patterns.
Are there any overarching lessons to be drawn here? Well, although each of these series are different, there is an underlying thread related to the importance of logic and the way it impacts our thinking and decision-making. It is natural for people to follow their own prejudices and feelings; they can talk themselves into a particular position regardless of what they actually know, and whether or not their view is supported by objective data.
(We are living through a time where this is an especially pernicious problem, making it even more relevant. Ed.)
Data-driven approaches to decision-making (including appropriate use of algorithms) could be a partial solution to the problem. Of course, algorithms themselves are designed by human beings, and are bound by human-designed parameters in the first place. So it’s not just a question of using algorithms, it’s also a question of adopting suitable methods and practices to design algorithms that, as much as possible, avoid human tendencies toward bias and prejudice. Certainly though, suitably-designed algorithms could be a tool to help us overcome our own prejudices — perhaps even to recognise when they exist in the first place.
I believe that working with data effectively also requires a good grasp of philosophy, literature, and psychology. It’s not just about raw technical skills. Data scientists, therefore, could be considered a new kind of thinker — one that understands and leverages data, but who is equipped to consider that data in a broader human context that isn’t purely mechanistic.
There are plenty of other fascinating anime that effectively touch on the topics I’ve described here. But for me, these three specific anime draw a strong connection to data science and technology. If you enjoy any of these anime, you might be inclined to pursue these related topics in more detail. And if you do happen to have any suggestions on anime that you think people interested in these topics should consider, please feel free to add them in the comments.
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