Soundings

TECHNO SAPIENS?

May 2014    

José Padiha’s recent stylish “reboot” of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 B-Grade movie Robocop is perhaps one of the more successful remakes in this genre. To be sure, Padiha and his screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have much more material to work with than Verhoeven did back in the late 80s. The movie throws up issues that could serve as talking points for any student of ethics.

Padiha liberally and almost nonchalantly took high-calibre shots at drone warfare, media power and legislators’ vulnerabilities to the seductive lure of money and marketing. But the most profound issue that the movie raises and wrestles with is the question about what it means to be human. To be sure, this question has exercised the minds of philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries. But in the brave new world that we now inhabit, a world of biotechnology, this question has become especially urgent and vexing.

Cybernetics is the technology that facilitates the blending of humans with machines. This is achieved not just by replacing certain body parts with mechanical devices, but also by interfacing the human brain and silicon-based devices, such as computers. The term was first coined by the mathematician Norbert Weiner in 1948, who developed his ideas in a book published two years later, provocatively entitled The Human Use of Human Beings.

Cybernetics has since been developing in remarkable ways. For example, in the mid-1990s, scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, successfully established connections between animals and transistors, enabling two-way communication through the silicon-neuronal junction. And in 2000, scientists in Chicago implanted the first artificial retinas in blind patients suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, enabling their sight to be partially restored.

Although the therapeutic potentials of cybernetics are truly staggering, the rapid development of this technology has also brought in its wake some serious concerns. Theologians and ethicists are concerned, for example, that cybernetics would blur the distinction between therapy and enhancement. They worry that with the ability to enhance human capabilities and performance, attributes that were once considered normal would now be seen as disabilities.

And while this technology can in some sense level the playing field, it also has the potential to introduce even larger disparities between cultures and sub-cultures. There are also debates on whether certain limits need to be set for using such technologies for enhancement.

Trans- or post-humanists have argued that there are no rational or moral grounds for setting any limits on human enhancement. They hope that the creation of the cyborg (cybernetic organisms) would enable humanity to transcend the limits imposed by nature. In fact, for many of them concepts like “humanity” and “nature” are superfluous. They decry the notion of the fixity of nature and argue that evolutionary biology has taught us that human nature itself is dynamic and evolving.

They believe that cybernetics will enable them to speed up the evolutionary process towards the post-human future of their imagination. In his provocative book, The Singularity is Near, futurist Ray Kurzweil writes: “Biological evolution did create a species that could think and manipulate the environment. That species is now succeeding in accessing – and improving – its own design and is capable of reconsidering and altering these basic tenets of biology.”

The Christian faith has always maintained that science and technology as human enterprises are made possible by the providential grace of God. But the Christian faith also teaches that precisely because they are human enterprises, science and technology are always bound up with human sin and rebellion.

The vision of the trans- and post-humanists is an instance of the “colossalism of the human spirit”, that idolatrous pride which the Bible calls sin.

Five years before Norbert Weiner invented the word “cybernetics”, C.S. Lewis published his remarkable book, The Abolition of Man. In this book, Lewis speaks of the profound ambiguity that accompanies all human attainments of mastery and power: “There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man. Each new advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.”

This is true of every human cultural enterprise, including cybernetics.

“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

Picture of the “Robocop” statue at the movie’s premiere in Los Angeles, California, on Feb 10 this year was taken by Joe Seer/Bigstock.com

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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