Friday, November 6, 2009

James Cameron's Avatar and our transcendent technological future

We all know James Cameron as the director of Epic movies like Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic. After 1997, he devoted himself to one project and waited for the necessary technology to create a 3D production of mind-bending visual quality. The trailer and high-res images look very promising, and it seems like this is a must-see for anyone interested in transhumanism.

The core of the movie definitely seems to be to address the human desire to transcend itself and transform the own body and world into something that seems paradise-like. The narrative is that humans come into conflict with the Na'vi civilization of the exquisitely beautiful planet Pandora. The Na'vi look exceptionally human, although they seem to be an image of perfection as their skin is serenely blue, they are slim and tall and move with an elegantly intelligent panther-like motion. Their faces look in between human and feline, and they even have a tail for optimal balance in striding the fluorescent forests of their planet.

Humans, still masculine-biased as we have always been, use not embodied skill but mostly brute primitive technological force to combat the Na'vi. But weak as our bodies are, we do not develop them but transplant our consciousness into genetically engineered bodies that mix human DNA with that of the Na'vi. This allows disabled people such as the movie's marine protagonist to still fight.

This movie could definitely be the highlight of the year, as James Cameron combines stunning computer graphics with a nice narrative, contemporary themes of science and technology, and the new medium of 3D cinema that at least adds to the experience of immersion. The whole feel of the movie strongly reminds me of a possibly nearby transcendence of human consciousness which is often called the 'Aquarian age'. From a technological point of view, I always envisioned this to coincide with the intimate connection of electronics into the human body and their enabling of the development of high physical skill towards an embodied oneness of mind, body and environment. The Na'vi seem like a projection of this vision, as they live like tribal people but are highly intelligent and wise, both mentally and physically.

I am still critical of the technological component of projecting our consciousness into another body and controlling that with thought/imagination, as also seen in the movie 'Surrogates' earlier this year. I do not think that it will be possible to control another body as well as your own body, or even come close to that amount of control, because there is a gap in embodiment. I will elaborate a little bit on this critical view.

Embodied skill is developed through progressive interaction with objects that our consciousness gets directed at. As we learn, more and more of what we do is embedded into our memory. This memory is both present in the brain as well as in the cells of our dynamical muscle-joint system. Muscles optimize themselves so as to facilitate similar movements in the future with as least possible conscious control from the brain. And conversely, the brain optimizes itself to give minimal commands that produce maximal effects. In the end, the body as a whole needs less and less resources, and is highly coupled to the neocortical brain. If the environment of the embodied being is limited in generating value for that being, the actions will be minimized such as just walking, eating and sleeping. Through endless repetition of the same movements then, the body becomes highly intertwined as a functional whole, and in the end only a minimal brain command is needed to set off a series of movements in the body. Which is probably why a chicken can run for a while even after his head is cut off.

But this means that if we want to control a remote organic humanoid body with our brain, this body needs to either be highly coupled to the human controller's brain, or have developed sophisticated motor skills to repeated interactions in an environment. Executing the first option would be highly complex, as an incredible amount of very specific neurons or at least sets of neurons have will have to be coupled to the nerve system or brain of the avatar. Reading a human brain that specifically from the outside will require a device that is as or more complex as the human brain itself. Another way would be to also genetically alter human neurons and connect a wireless transmitting element to the axon, so it can be received by another brain directly. It seems that in principle this could be done, although there would still be an enormous amount of neurons that cannot communicate to the other body, because each brain physically optimizes itself to fit one body. Thus, the human brain would have to alter itself when connected to the other body so that to the brain it becomes part of its own body. Switching connection from body to body would require an enormous amount of neuroplasticity, and I doubt whether the human brain can handle that in its current form. Maybe we will have to engineer our own brains first before that can happen.

The other option is equally challenging, even more so on an ethical level. It implies namely, that if we want a remote organic body to react skillfully to brain commands, this body will have to have developed motor skills through experience. In other words, the body has to have had a life. Moreover, I believe that things like emotions and personalities develop as early ways to increase the derivation of value out of perception-action loops, and that these are intrinsically connected to the process of perceptual-motor skill learning. The concept of flow is an obvious bridge between the two; if you move in a flow with your environment, you often couple this to positive emotions. At the same time, you are developing and refining perceptual-motor skills. When you have difficulty handling something this often is perceived as frustrating, and the body is not yet in the flow, but struggling to grow to find ways to get into a fluent interaction with body and mind. Holistically said, I think that in order for a body to have optimal perceptual motor skills, it has to have a happy life. We probably do not want to create beings that develop a life of their own, to at some point be overtaken by a human being's brain and sent out to fight wars. Also we probably don't want to grow these beings in a lab environment and keep them in a dumb, almost dormant state, to only have them acquire physical skills. This will only create a new master-slave dualism in our society, an increasing cultural deification of the human paired with a reification of the nonhuman.

So what we could do is develop tool-bodies that lie somewhere in between the two extremes of depersonalized but unsophisticated engineered body coupled with high technological human augmentation, or a sophisticated slave body. We could develop bodies that have what you could call an insect-consciousness: basic motor skills but no emotional or reflective capacity. Organic warfare machines that need only a few commands, and that on the fly can develop intelligent motor skills by generating basic action-perception loops such as jumping and running on various terrains. But then, do we just exterminate these bodies when we unplug from them, or can we in some way coexist with them?

I think it would be better to not fight any remote civilizations in the first place, but to first find a way to live with ourselves on this planet, be happy with the body and planet we have, not need any avatars at all, and realize that this is paradise already. So I would encourage movie-goers to see this movie from the perspective that this could happen and what you would do, instead of being only emotionally massaged and imbued with new dreams and desires.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

breathing together through technology

The idea of networked physicality is brilliant to me and should in my view soon be adopted and made widespread in some way by a large corporations. It will connect us more holistically and draw us away more from seeing ourselves as mostly mental beings, communicating through words that stem from disembodied thoughts.

An early example of technology that physically connects us is devised by Jessica Floeh. Her 'exChange' system lets two people wear each other's breath in a very intimately coupled way. Stretch sensors in a belt measure one's chest circumference, and directly connect this data to the size of an expandable object worn on the belt of another person. This way, you are directly connected to the breath of another person.

Such intimate technological connections can become of profound meaning, and not only connect but also guide us on an implicit level. Studies have shown that subtle cues and dynamics in our environment can directly influence our own behavior. For example, we start to move more slowly if we are exposed to things we relate to 'oldness'. I am convinced that the more we connect ourselves physically to other living beings - either organic or technological -, we will more and more start to guide and follow each other, and this will in the end result more and more quickly to our activities being optimized through these instant and broad communication loops. We will find our own silence amidst all this data if only we explore in an experiential and embodied way, and stay aware of what works for us.

Breath to me is an excellent starting point, because it is very easy to ignore and overlook in our often turbulent daily lives. But breath is the fundament of all life, connected to every of your actions. The quality of your breath is the quality of your life, you might say. Breath is even equated with the concept of soul by Christians, given to us on birth by God. Breath can be said to be divine inspiration, and the basis for all true creativity. By controlling one's breath, making it calm, deep and slow, we learn to come in tune with our own body and through that with the whole that intends to be creative through our own body. I think it is not a view too grand to feel that a true awakening can be catalyzed by innovations like these, if they are developed further and spread amongst people.

Wearable products have a crucial role here in that they can bridge the gap of socio-cultural acceptance, because they allow for intimate connections without being obtrusive. On the other hand, more conventional plastic-encased electronic products have the advantage of being cheap, small, and multifunctional. So these industries need to come together, their knowledge needs to fuse and make for emergent technologies that can make these innovations happen. And meanwhile, people need to become more open to products that revolve more and more around quality of interaction and unitasking instead of mindless multitasking and abstract interactions. People need to learn to be happy with little, and able to leave technologies at home, seeing when it is the right time to connect to certain technologies and at the same time disconnect from other technological connections. This will be a slow process, but I definitely see this occuring more and more, and an exciting future awaits us.

Monday, November 2, 2009

you can be a robot, but you'll still be you

If you've seen the recent movie 'Surrogates', where Bruce Willis lives his life through an idealized version of his own body called a surrogate, and you think this to be purely speculative science fiction, maybe your view changes after viewing the latest prototype of Anybots. This company produces telepresence robots through which you can be present anywhere and "enjoy complete freedom to move fluidly and interact with others in a remote location from the ease of your home or office."

Omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, from the comfort of our lazy chair, is that really what we want? While such technology can help us reach temporarily more satisfactory states of being, I think it should be used with great care and awareness of what one is essentially doing: ignoring the own body, abstracting one's embodied existence and fragmenting one's consciousness. While we seem to need temporary comforts, I am convinced that we should remain aware that there is a happiness beyond comfort, and that life is a progressive learning to connect to this form of happiness. A happiness that you could call sublime or even divine.

In my experience, happiness can only be reached by transcending the boundaries of the self and its preferences, and constantly connecting to one's personal challenges, seeing how every moment connects to that project of the self, making it more and more in tune with the environment. Where comfort is one option, the other option is to immerse oneself in activities that make one grow as the craftsman of one's own perceptions. Whereas distractions like social interactions are easy to live by, there is always more to do: mastering the art of life. If we truly see ourselves as cosmic artists, already allknowing, allperceiving, allexperiencing and allbeing, we ultimately see that happiness lies in immersion in fully embodied action. I feel that only when we live as fully embodied beings, technology being an intrinsic part of us that we are always mastering in full connection, that we can truly calm down our consciousness and live a blissful life.

I see telepresence robots as a great development, especially when the focus will more and more be on a richer bodily connection, so the entire mind and body become involved. But more than that, people using another body should be kept aware of their own biologically given body and live in tune with that. Technology can play the role of an abstractor and enhancer, but it should also always have the larger role of a personal guide through life. Now is the time that we need to face away from capitalism, and start developing technology from a true shared vision of human happiness, so people will not get tricked into adopting technologies that they think will make them happy, while being blinded to what it actually does to their lives from a holistic point of view.