The Cyborg Soul

Lyla Fujiwara '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

TINSTAAFL, there is no such thing as a free lunch is, in economics terms, is the concept that every gain is offset by a loss. When applied to speculations of the future, the logical conclusion is that if there are great achievements, something will inevitably have to be lost or adversely altered. Part of the appeal of science fiction novels and films is exploring worst-case scenarios. lost.

The concept of being human is usually synonymous to the concept of having a soul. The opposite of human is the machine, a cold and emotionless construct that exists for a strictly defined materialistic purpose. This is in opposition to the almost divine and undefinable purpose of the human, or rather the human's soul. This concept of soul is very near and dear to us. In an environment of bodily flux, where we not only choose to change our appearance, but undergo less controlled metamorphoses (such as growing old), we want to believe that some inner part of ourselves remains sacred and constant.

Science fiction authors and directors like to explore the concept of emulated souls, and the concept of existence without a fleshy shell. How souls such as the ones possessed by the The Puppet Master in Ghost in the Shell, The AIs in Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy, the replicates in Blade Runner and Max in Max Headroom came into existence is shrouded in mystery. It is this mystery that parallels the mystery of our own cognitive origins and existence.

One of the major questions that arises is whether the emulated souls possessed by machines are in fact real. Do they have the basic divinity that we attribute to humanity or are the complex simulations, falling somehow crucially short of being human. Is there something that cannot be emulated no matter how much science tries? The answer is complicated and hard to define, mostly because what is meant by real soul in itself is a conundrum. Still most of the films seem to sympathize with the android, implying that they more than just machines.

Blade Runner has a particularly interesting take on what it means to be human. In the film an iris scan is used to detect emotional responses. Test that allows humans to distinguish human from android. This implies that it is our capability to feel, our emotions define our humanity. Rachael is shown as far more human because she expresses a pallet of human emotions that we find more familiar then the twisted and childish emotions of the other replicates. When considering this thesis though, one must take into account that the environment that Rachael was created in was vastly different than that of the other replicants. Thus it could be helpful to examine the age old question of nature vs. nurture. Take, for example, the myth of the feral child. The feral child is a child that grows up in the wild, often raised by animals. There are no verifiable instances though of this actually happening for the precise reason that early contact with other people and inclusion in society is crucial for survival and development. Leon's shooting of Holden after Holden questions him about his mother is therefore illuminating. We know that Leon, as a replicant, did not have a mother, and this scene highlights that fact. Leon was not raised, and did not have a childhood, which is also the case of the other replicants. They are not feral children, but they are children that lack a childhood, a past. Thus it is possible that the replicants have the capacity to be human, to have souls, but were not raised as humans. After all, the key difference between Rachael and the other replicants is that she has memories (namely childhood memories) the others do not.

These memories, as the viewer and Rachael later discover, are fake, but does that matter? If real memories and a real past are so important when determining our humanity then what of the garbage man in Ghost in the Shell who was neurally hacked. Is he no longer human since many of his memories have been tampered with, or destroyed?

In the end, what do these emulated souls show us? Is there really anything that separates us from machines or are humans themselves just complex biological robots. And as we physically become more mechanical, more cybernetic, is there a possibility that this melding will encroach upon something more sacred? This idea is explored in Ghost in the Shell, when Major Kusanagi combines with Experiment 2501 aka The Puppet Master. We know at the end that the soul that Batou rescues from Kusanagi's shell is not Kusanagi, nor is it Experiment 2501, but a new being that contains the melded consciousness of both. The merging of Kusanagi and The Puppet Master is the ultimate cyborg because not only is her body a mixture of machine and flesh, but her soul is a mixture of the machine soul and human.

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Last modified 3 November 2006