A classic among cyberpunk fans and followers of anime in general, Ghost In The Shell’s future of an increasing symbiotic relationship of integration between human and machine presciently explores the old philosophical question of what it means to be human.
The 1995 animated sci-fi dives, intuitively, deep into the possible social impacts of the advent of cybernetic augmentation of people. It follows the life of the protagonist, Mokoto Kunsanagi, who is – baring consciousness – fully cyberised.
Although Ghost In The Shell is over a decade old, the social concepts explored through special agent Kunsanagi’s encounters and interactions may become ever more relevant as humanity charges forward in advancing human-machine interfaces.
Plugging Into Our Future
“Creating a neural lace is the thing that really matters for humanity to achieve symbiosis with machines.”
This is according to a 2016 tweet from technology entrepreneur, Elon Musk. Having borrowed the term “neural lance” from sci-fi writer, Ian M Banks, Musk set out to do exactly that when he founded Neuralink in 2017.
However, Musk’s foray into the science of connecting the human mind to computers is far from being humanity’s first attempt. A Yale University based neuroscientist, Jose Delgado invented a radio controlled neural implant, which he named the stimoceiver. The device could detect brain signals and deliver micro-shocks to the cortex.
To demonstrate his work, Delgado entered into a bullring in Córdoba with a bull that had his novel device implanted in its brain. When the bull began charging towards Delgado, he pushed the two buttons on his transmitter. The initial press sent a jolt to the animal’s caudate nucleus, causing it to halt its charge. A press of the second button caused the bull to trot away toward a wall.
For Delgado, the end game was to decipher and possibly edit a person’s thoughts.
“The human race is at an evolutionary turning point. We’re very close to having the power to construct our own mental functions,”
Delgado told the New York Times.
Years later, in 1998, Dr Philip Kennedy and Emory University neural surgeon Roy Bakay became the first to successfully implant a probe they called the neurotrophic electrode into a stroke survivor’s brain. Following many years of low funding and the death of Roy Bakay, Dr Kenneth travelled to Belize to have an implant inserted into his own brain.
As strange as all this may seem to some, for Kennedy, this is the natural course for humanity.
“Your brain will be infinitely more powerful than the brains we have now.We’re going to extract our brains and connect them to small computers that will do everything for us, and the brains will live on.”
Said Kennedy in a 2016 interview.
This is eerily close to the future envisioned by the 90s anime classic, Ghost In The Shell.
Ghosts (Computer Integrated Consciousness) Living In Bionic Shells
The thought of having your consciousness fused with the internet is a cool concept for most sci-fi fanatics. However, as portrayed in Ghost In The Shell and through the experiences of Dr Delgado and Dr Kennedy, there will be a lot of opposition to such a prospect.
In Mokoto Kunsanagi’s world, these detractors of cyberisation are called naturalists and their fears are not far-fetched. In the – not so connected – world of today, cybercrime and cyber-warfare are already hot topics.
Imagine if we all had our consciousness on the internet and a bionic body to interact with the physical world. Threats from cyberspace could take on whole new meaning. Identity theft could become far more sinister and malicious actors with the right skills could have an unprecedented level of influence over large numbers of people.
There are many questions that arise from this ever more possible scenario. Does the potential risk of having someone else editing your thoughts and actions outweigh the benefits of being able to live forever? Would you trust a government or private entity with safeguarding your digital “Ghost”? What if your bionic body were to be stolen or duplicated for criminal use? How safe would a naturalist, just as human as any cyberisationist, be in a world where new bionic bodies can be bought and sold on the black market? In a world where we already battle prejudices of all forms, what new kinds of discrimination would the to sides have to face from one another?
Having touched on all of these concepts in a time when the internet was still very young, Ghost In The Shell was and still is ahead of its time. For us, it is a great and thoughtful piece of viewing. However, for coming generations, it may well be a life that is as exciting as it is confusing.
Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? In the days of rock painting, art imitated life. As we move into the future, the question becomes a lot trickier to answer.