God, persons and bio-machines

By Brian Edgar

Humanity has a built in desire to initiate, build and create, and the newer biological sciences revolving around biology, genetics and nanotechnology means that technological tools are emerging which can mean nothing less than the re-creation of the human person. A symbiotic relationship between humanity and machinery already exists and there is now a debate between trans-humanists who are looking towards a shift in human nature, perhaps moving towards a post-human condition and bio-conservatives who see trans-human initiatives as nothing other than de-humanising.  The possibility of transcending previous limitations on what it means to be human is now before us.

There is a cartoon that shows a salesperson pointing out the benefits of the latest personal computer to a potential buyer. She says, ‘It’s beginning to show some human characteristics — faulty reasoning, forgetfulness and repetition’.

If you find this even mildly amusing then, at the very least, it indicates that you are actually human and not just a machine! As it stands at the moment the ability to read the text, interpret the pictures, understand the literal meaning, comprehend the much more subtle point that is being made, and then feel even slightly amused and, finally, show that emotion in a manner appropriate for your setting, are all abilities and characteristics of humans. Even when doing something as simple as reading a cartoon it takes a lot to be a human being and yet we do so effortlessly!

The rich complexity of human life includes within it humour and imagination and the desire to continually want to go beyond our present state and position and press into new territory, to learn new things, to extend our abilities and even to transcend our very nature. Whether in cartooning or in science human imagination has always exceeded present reality, and thank goodness for that. Imagination is intelligence playing around and having fun. Thousands of years ago the Greeks imagined Icarus flying, and today we can (though a Boeing 747 is far less graceful and romantic a way to fly than on feathered wings!). The alchemists dreamt of transmuting lead into gold and although that is still beyond us we can turn sand into glass, iron ore into steel and petrochemicals into plastics. The ancient myth of the ‘fountain of youth’ – that there was a fountain from which one could drink in order to gain eternal life – is just that, a myth. And yet there are researchers who are not interested just in eliminating one disease here and another cause of death there, but who are investigating and manipulating the most fundamental aging mechanisms of the human body so that there can be an almost unlimited extension of human life. Telomere therapy may well be the means to allow people to live indefinitely. How would you feel about living to be, say, 400 years old? In 1818 Mary Shelley imagined the artificial creation of ‘human’ life in her story ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, an idea that was so thoroughly bizarre and terrifying that for almost 200 years it was the classic horror story. And, of course, the history of film from Hel (the very feminine robot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic ‘Metropolis’) to Hal (the manipulative computer in ‘2001: a space odyssey’) is replete with examples of robotic machines that are uncannily human. The relationship between the human and the non-human machine is one that has been the subject of much speculation.

This article first appeared as God, persons and machines: theological reflections on the ISCAST web-site as part of  Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology (the peer reviewed on line journal of  ISCAST).
Alternatively, you can download it here:  God, Persons and Bio-machines: theological reflections
  In addition to that, the abstract and the first part of the article are reproduced below.

Abstract

The desire to transcend the limitations of human nature along with the development of new biological technologies, nanotechnology and an increasing understanding of genetics is transforming the human person and leading towards the development of cyborgs. The process of merging the mechanical with the biological has begun, the re-creation of the self is underway and the future holds even more changes in store. A symbiotic relationship between humanity and machinery already exists. There is now a debate between trans-humanists who are looking towards a shift in human nature, perhaps moving towards a post-human condition and bio-conservatives who see trans-human initiatives as nothing other than de-humanising.

In developing a theologically appropriate attitude towards these changes there are three important issues relating to the nature and action of God and the nature of humanity which have to be resolved. The first issue concerns the value of the various orders and structures of the natural world, the species and kingdoms and other previously impenetrable barriers which exist within in the natural world between various forms of life. To what extent are these appropriately blurred or overcome? The second concerns the nature of God’s action in the world, the role that humanity plays in representing God and the appropriateness of understanding humanity as co-creators or, preferably, as pro-creators with God. The third concerns the meaning and status of human nature and the limits to our future human-controlled evolutionary development.

Cyborgs

With test-tube babies, the re-programming of stem cells, gene manipulation and bio-printing (a process which utilises a modified ink-jet printer to spray out cells — instead of ink — onto successive layers of gell — instead of paper — in a computer generated pattern to build up a three dimensional replica of a bodily organ) the merging of the human and the mechanical no longer seems so unlikely — though for many it is still as horrific. The moral dimension is never far from the physical. In 1960, two writers, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, wrote a speculative article about the difficulty of space exploration and the incredibly large amounts of time it would take to get anywhere really interesting (Clines 1960).[1] They proposed that the rigors of extended space travel could be alleviated if it was possible to alter the form of the human person so that machines and electronic devices became a part of them. They called such people ‘cybernetic organisms’ or cyborgs for short. In an earlier era, where human relationships with animals were more significant than relationships with machines, people speculated about centaurs — half human and half horse, or the Sphinx — lion with a human face. It is just as natural in an age where machines are more important for people to speculate about the integration of human and machine. Donna Haraway defines cyborgs as ‘creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted’. They have ‘dangerous possibilities’ (Haraway 1991 p.149).

The re-creation of the self has started: changing the form of our bodies though surgery, chemicals, hormone-producing implants, prosthetic limbs, organ transplants, xenotransplantion, artificial hearts, pacemakers, bionic ears, soon perhaps the replacement of damaged optic nerves in blind people with electronic technology to restore vision. These changes do not only affect the body but also character, through gene therapy and medication which treats mental disorders and alters sexual orientation. What changes will the control of neurochemistry bring about?

The process of merging the mechanical with the biological has begun.[2] Machines are now implanted into people and made acceptable to bodies through the use of various drugs which suppress the immune systems’ rejection of them. We might not yet have all the technology of the six million dollar man but we are moving along quite nicely. Although I think that the vision of the television hero, ‘the six million dollar man’, is likely to remain unfulfilled in the form in which it was envisaged simply because the writers did not imagine that machines would actually start to change in their nature and become more biological.

The future holds even more changes in store. The genetic/biological revolution is merging with the science and technology of machines. Machines are changing. They are becoming more organic. The future of machines at the human machine interface lies with biotechnology. The unifying principle for life is DNA which links animal, vegetable and human life. The work that has been done in molecular biology and the creation of organic machines means that the possibility of creating cyborgs that are even more sophisticated and which involve a higher level of interaction of human and machine than previously imagined is very real. The merging of human and machine means a blurring of the boundaries of that which is human and that which is machine.

One great example of this convergence is the connection of James Watson with Leonard Adleman[3]. Watson is one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA and he wrote Molecular biology of the Gene which Adleman read. When doing so he realised that DNA could be used as a computer. Computers store data in strings made up of the numbers 0 and 1. Living things store information with molecules represented by the letters G, A, T and C. This was the beginning of DNA computing, and it was as recent as 1994. As long as computers are silicon based they are not ‘us’ but as they become DNA they can become part of us. The work has a long way to go, but it does go on because of the huge advantages with DNA computers[4]: there is a very cheap and unlimited source of supply, they are incredibly small but potentially hugely powerful because of ability to have parallel processing, and they can merge with people! Work in this area has continued as various people have developed logic gates and miniscule machines with self-sustaining power supplies and commercially viable projects using the power of parallel operation.

We are all cyborgs now

But if cyborg is a symbiotic relationship between human and machine the question has already been asked, most notably by Donna Haraway in her cyborg manifesto (1985), whether we are already cyborgs now. Haraway says, we are all cyborgs; our lives depend upon and are intimately connected with machines. The fact that we could live, and that some people do live, without machines is irrelevant for those of us that cannot imagine life without machines.

There is a tendency today to anthropomorphise machines (ascribing human characteristics to machines: ‘my computer hates me’; ‘ask Google’;) and technomorphise people (viewing people as machines: ‘the brain is a computer’; ‘memory banks’). Whether willingly or unwillingly we are dependent on machines almost every moment of out lives. We are humans whose lives are integrated with machines that we have made. We are not physically cyborgs but culturally we are because of the impact of machines such as cars, computers and coffee machines. They have profound impact on every area of life, our comfort, recreation, knowledge and education. Our lives are controlled and formed by machines: where the car can go; what Google can tell us; what is shown on the TV; the way we work (for example. evidence to show that computer use in business can alter the decision making mode away from collaboration towards individual, sequential thinking). Our social relationships have not only been changed by machines but now extend to machines. As Ray Kurzweil has said, ‘the only question is whether we become machines or machines become us’.

There are two aspects to this cyborg movement. There is the physical development and its implications for human morphology with the cyborg as a technological/biological issue in which machines become more organic, utilising molecular nanotechnology leading to ultimate control over human physiology and morphology, meaning it will be possible to build and re-build almost any part of our body atom by atom. Developments in artificial intelligence and DNA computing which can be seamlessly integrated into our brains will also be profound.

Then there is the cultural development related to being cyborg and the implications for human identity. This is cyborg as an idea or concept or perhaps a metaphor through which we determine ourselves through our interactions as part of a technoculture. In this sense cyborg is a term through which the nature of humanity is being explored.

How do we interpret this cyborg nature? There are positive interpretations of this movement. For some it is part of the modern thrust for exploration: In terms of a modern myth it means, in terms of Star Trek, ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. For others it is a metaphor (signifier) of a move towards a positive technocratic society with a new form of transhumanism leading to posthuman society. Philosophical interpretations of this human search for self transcendence includes Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief in Superman (literally ‘overman’) as humanity that has overcome the false values and flaws of humanity and has reached a state where humanity is no longer affected by pity, suffering, tolerance of the weak, the power of the soul over the body, the belief in an afterlife or the corruption of modern values. In Thus spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, says

I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome [surpassed]. What have you done to overcome [surpass] him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.

At the same time there are negative interpretations. For some, rather than the idealism of Star Trek, there is the fear of the computer Hal in ‘2001: a space odyssey’. There has long been speculation that machines will one day take over, as anyone who has read Isaac Asimov’s science fiction will know. His rules of robotics, well defined in many stories are designed to ensure that robots stay in their places and do not become humanity’s master rather than its servant. But of course, there is another way of ‘taking over’ by assimilation rather than by confrontation, an approach that is far more likely as machines change and as humans bring it about themselves. Is this another illustration of the story of the tower of Babel, which stands as a warning that it is possible for humanity to over-reach itself?

This (Tower) is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing will now be impossible for them; so the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the earth. (Gen. 11:6-7)

Are we building our own towers today? The industrial revolution of the eighteenth century and the information and computing revolution of the twentieth century will be technically and morally surpassed in significance by biotechnological revolution of the twenty-first century.

In all this there is now a debate between the transhumanists who are looking towards a shift in human nature, moving perhaps towards a post-human condition, and the bioconservatives who see transhuman initiatives as nothing other than de-humanising tendencies.

Three fundamental theological issues

I believe that at present there are three important theological issues which have to be resolved. These issues emerge in various discussions related to different biotechnologies time and time again and they are all important in any discussion of the human-machine interface. One of these issues has to do with God, one with humanity and one with the world…….

The full article can be downloaded via the link above.


[1] Their idea is the basis of the 1982 movie, “Blade Runner”, in which the enhanced humans, the Cyborgs, are engaged in mining operations in the farther reaches of space.

[2] However viewing ‘the body as a machine’ is something of a philosophical return to Rene Descartes who argued that the human body was simply a machine made out of dead matter.

[3] The technology is still in development, and didn’t even exist as a concept a decade ago. In 1994, Leonard Adleman introduced the idea of using DNA to solve complex mathematical problems. Adleman, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, came to the conclusion that DNA had computational potential after reading the book Molecular biology of the Gene, written by James Watson (now in its fifth edition, published by Pearson/Benjamin Cummings, 2003), who co-discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.

[4] There are several advantages to using DNA instead of silicon. As long as there are cellular organisms, there will always be a supply of DNA. The large supply of DNA makes it a cheap resource. Unlike the toxic materials used to make traditional microprocessors, DNA biochips can be made cleanly. DNA computers are many times smaller than today’s computers. DNA’s key advantage is that it will make computers smaller than any computer that has come before them, while at the same time holding more data. Unlike conventional computers, DNA computers perform calculations parallel to other calculations.

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