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.

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