Humanity within Engineered Bodies

Michael Kim '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

Cyborgs are beings that once used to be completely human, but then gave up parts of their bodies and humanity to integrate technology and machine into themselves. This technology augments their body and brain functions, making them almost superhuman. However, after a certain point, they begin to lose their humanity and question themselves. In The Ghost in the Shell, the major used to be human, but so many of her body parts were replaced that all that remains of her is her ghost, a human mental entity, that resides in her shell, an artificial cyborg body. In a conversation she holds with Batou, another cyborg, she questions her humanity and existence, wondering if her thoughts and experiences are actually human. Being treated like a human doesnít make her one. Furthermore, her body no longer belongs to her because she signed off her body to the Section 9 when it was augmented. When she retires, she has to return her augmented brain and body parts. However, when her entire body is a machine, how can she return it? On the other end of the spectrum, in which a shell has no trace of human body parts but has a ghost, the question is raised about what defines a human being; is it the body or the sentient mind? The major seems to think that itís the physical body, but the Puppet Master, a program that has gained awareness of its own existence, believes itís the mind. The Puppet Master creates a robotic body and it is found that the body doesnít have a single trace of a human brain cell, but it displays signs of having a ghost within it. Without having any human body parts, the robot displays a human trait. When it is accused of not being able to prove its existence, it argues that human beings themselves have not been able to either, even with science and philosophy.

In the film Blade Runner and the anime Bubblegum Crisis, technology is not used to augment and replace body parts, but to create artificial beings for manual labor. The replicants of the film and the boomers of the anime both attempt to gain their humanity by escaping. Although both were engineered and made by human beings, they try to live like normal people in society. However, they were denied the right to a long life and the Nexus-6 model replicants have a four-year lifespan to control them. Both the film and the anime address the issue of what it means to be human. All the characters are sentient and aware of their own existence, and theyíre able to live with other people, but they still yearn for their humanity.


1. People in comas are considered human and so are people with missing body parts, so which is it that defines a human being?

2. In a society in which body parts are easily augmented and replaced, how is the image and idea of the body and mind changed?

3. The Puppet Master believes that it is sentient, but it lacks two things that are necessary for life, reproduction and death. Are those necessary for life and is it possible to be truly alive in the digital realm?

4. What does it mean to be human and why is it that beings that arenít human try to be?

Course Website cyborg Body & Self Literature

Last modified 31 October 2006