I have been imbibing a lot of “popular culture” lately on the subject of man, machines, digital “thought”, etc.
Whether it’s AMC’s “Humans”, FX’s Legion, or, most recently, Paramount’s “Ghost in the Shell,” it’s the newest mass contemplation: can intelligent thought be digitized? For a long time, the vast majority of the Western public would have said “no!” For a large portion of Americans, we would have based that on Judeo-Christian concepts of man as created by God as in the chapter of Genesis. A human created in God’s image through having had life “breathed” into him by his creator could not be replicated through digitalization, no matter how complicated the programming or even through an imitation of human-like qualities.
Speculation on the possibilities of this concept have been part of science fiction for the last century. Today, some of our most widely lauded technology gurus are predicting that each person’s individual essence or personality can eventually be downloaded into artificial human-like creations that last for generations and can easily have defective or worn-out parts replaced like the 1950’s American automobiles in Havana. Bill Gates says we should worry about getting replaced by these “robots.” Stephen Hawking warns of them taking over society like Skynet in the Terminator series.
There are some major metaphysical questions that are behind all of this speculation: is man’s consciousness something that can simply be digitized in the future? Will we even need reproduction in future centuries, since we can simply allow our digital consciousness continue infinitely by transferring it to a mobile entity of our choice? Will future “man” simply be shopping for a “new model” for our unique thoughts to be “carried” in?
The cultural vehicle which most closely reflects this projection is “Ghost in the Shell.” I’m not giving away the store by explaining that the concept is that a person’s brain has been implanted into an android body, giving her super abilities and powers. Based on a 1990’s Japanese anime film, the Scarlett Johansson vehicle spends some time considering how the “consciousness” known as “Major” becomes aware of her past and how she came to be. In our world of “limitless life” where downloaded consciousnesses inhabit repairable bodies, one would expect that such transfers would be voluntary. Who would choose to pass up “immortality?”
In the end, someone would have to volunteer to be an early experiment in these methods. For many, this is a spiritual question as well. We return to a key question: is man the result of a God-created soul or is he simply an organic version of digital computerization? Can creativity, love, passion, innovation, “changing your mind,” be replicated in a “mother of all programs” in an AI version of individuality?
This is why the question of this possibility may have a great impact on religion, spirituality, and what constitutes individual thought. Something to ponder…and we are seeing that pondering take place in modern popular culture.