Is Technology an Existential Threat?
So what are your own reactions to technology? Do you feel excited or downright horrified at the possibility of owning a humanoid Tesla bot that could run your errands for you?
Have you noticed how movies released in the 1980s to as late as the 2010s envisioned a dystopian future, catalysed by some robot-type or A.I. apocalypse? Movies like The Terminator (1984), Blade Runner (1982) with the sequel of 2013, and Ghost in the Shell (1995), all depict a highly mechanised and digitalised society where slim differences exist between human and machine. The wildly popular and revolutionary ‘Black Mirror’ series cemented this social commentary by interrogating the negative ethical implications of smart tech. Enter real life, and from the total-surveillance city of Shenzhen in China where jaywalking lowers your social credit, to the bricks-and-mortar Amazon Go stores powered entirely by an app, it is crystal clear how dystopian sci-fi themes explored by these movies were not so far off the mark.
So how does this relate to you, and to your own reactions to technology? Do you feel excited or downright horrified at the possibility of owning a humanoid Tesla bot that could run your errands for you? I imagine your mind would first explode with the possibilities of everything that could go wrong, before you would even begin to appreciate its benefits. And no, you are not being a downer or conspiratorial in the least when you react this way. You are simply picking up on deep psychological concepts such as ‘the Uncanny’, as well as philosophical issues surrounding technology like Critical Post-humanism, Ethical Cybernetics, and the Mind/Body problem. We will begin with the psychological exploration of what makes technology uncanny.
In 1919, Sigmund Freud, a pioneer in the field of psychoanalysis, wrote a ground-breaking essay titled The Uncanny or Unheimlich. According to Freud, the canny, or ‘heimlich’, relates to the home or that which is homely, familiar, hidden, and comfortable; the uncanny or ‘unheimlich’ relates to that which is unhomely, unconcealed, unfamiliar, and therefore eerie. A Freudian interpretation of a haunted house, for instance, would be that it represents the disturbed psyche. The uncanny, therefore, relates to that which has been repressed within the home (psyche) that eventually finds an outlet into your conscious world and whose effect on you is downright frightening.
In fact another term for the uncanny is ‘the return of the repressed’, where things that were previously unthreatening and familiar (usually from childhood) suddenly take on a strangely insidious quality in your present-day life, for instance, clowns or dolls. It’s no wonder there are entire horror movie franchises premised on these two examples. It is because what truly frightens is that which appears to be objectively harmless but, due to psychological reasons, suddenly fills us with an unexplainable sense of fright and dread. Psychoanalysts also refer to this quality as negative familiarity, where the seemingly mundane suddenly becomes strange and unrelatable. Inanimate objects coming back to life, the Double/Doppelganger, severed limbs, and ghosts are some of the references made by Freud in his descriptions of the uncanny.
Robots as the Most Uncanny
In his 1906 essay On the Psychology of The Uncanny, German psychiatrist, Ernst Jentsch drew heavily from a short story called The Sandman, where the protagonist, Nathanial, falls in love with a woman, Olympia, who in the end is revealed to be an automaton, much to his horror and eventual suicide. According to Jentsch, the uncanny nature of any story involves figuring out whether a character is truly human or machine. What makes the automaton uncanny is the fact that it is a machine that mimics the human, and in doing so sometimes exhibits erratic and psychologically jarring behaviour. The mystery behind the workings of a robot also adds to this paranoia. The automaton in this case is the Freudian inanimate object acting as if it were alive, which carries with it deeply repressed issues for the collective to contemplate and address.
Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, also explored this concept further by asserting that the closer to human behaviour a robot is, the more uncanny feelings it will elicit in humans. Let me explain; an Automated Teller Machine (ATM) is quite impersonal as compared to a human bank teller and in this sense is not considered uncanny. But what about Sophia the robot, or a listening device like Google Home? Will Sophia end up being deceptive in her verbal responses or even physically assault you in your sleep; and will Google Home eavesdrop on you because of late-capitalism’s need to glean data from you for profit? These two devices would actually be exhibiting eerily human behaviour or negative familiarity if they acted in this way, and this uncertainty is what makes them uncanny as compared to an ATM.
Technology as Humanity’s ‘Doppelganger’
The Doppelganger or the Double is a powerful psychological archetype, which brings up issues of identity as well as immortality of the soul. In Literature and Film, this symbolism is usually explored as the evil twin, a malicious shadow, or a mirror that distorts your image or brings forth a malignant entity. In this sense, the double becomes a psychological dumping ground for the primary person, who then ascribes to the double all of their own negative aspects. By doing so, the double or the twin becomes evil, which only induces more uncanny feelings in the primary person.
The double also leads you to question your own identity and by confronting you, the doppelganger forces you to grapple with your own mortality. The soul is usually considered the double of the body, and it lives on after death. Indeed, in many cultures themes like reincarnation affirm the immutability of the soul. The double is an assurance of immortality, but ironically, it is also ‘’the uncanny harbinger of death’’ because it exposes your mortality as your identity or life is soon to be taken over by the more sophisticated evil twin.
I am reminded of one of the earliest classics I ever read, Frankenstein. In it, Victor Frankenstein toils tirelessly for almost a year to create life in a human body that he assembled from various body parts. But as soon as the creature opens its eyes, Frankenstein is suddenly horrified by his creation and is filled with morbid regret. Technology in this case is both our creation and sophisticated twin to whom we ascribe our collective traits, including the negative and insidious ones. If humanity is a race that enjoys conquering each other for resources and sometimes for sport, how much so could technology overthrow its own creator, the human race? Also, to what extent does technology remind us of our own mortality or imperfection and does this play any role at all in our uncanny feelings towards it?
Some Philosophical Considerations
Since the dawn of time, humanity has associated life and all events to forces external to himself. This was even more exaggerated during the Early Middle Ages where there was little advancement in art, culture, and the sciences in Europe. This led to the emergence of Humanism during the Renaissance period as a philosophical school of thought that centred the human as the author of his own experience, and who had full agency and of control himself and his environment.
In the modern age though, Humanism is slowly giving way to Post-humanism, which (to its eternal credit) essentially rejects human exceptionalism. Post-humanism asserts that the human is programmed by the environment to act in certain ways or to develop certain habits and must therefore co-exist with nature and his environment. Post-humanism advocates for an interdisciplinary approach where humanity embraces art, cybernetics, quantum science, ecology, psychoanalysis, among other disciples, as valuable tools in his advancement. Whereas Post-humanism would typically welcome technological advancement, Critical Post-humanism would be aware of its benefits and yet wary of its implications.
This gives way to an exploration of Ethical Cybernetics, which is a branch of ethics that concerns itself with the implications of merging human and machine intelligence. The process of cybernetics entails continuous learning and adapting based on the feedback received by the machine. In this way, it gradually becomes intelligent and capable of reaching complex goals. Cybernetics is highly used in the medical field, where robotic systems can make medical diagnoses based on uploaded past medical data which enables it to pick up on medical anomalies in current and future patients based on the feedback loop generated from the information fed to it.
To carry the Cybernetics concept further, the term cyborg or cybernetic organism was coined in 1960 as a reference to the merging of man and machine, or humanity with technology. A good example of cyborgs would be those of us who use medical technological enhancements like contact lenses, hearing aids, pacemakers, and prosthetics. In the social sphere, even those of us who wear smart watches, which are essentially wearable smart phones, can be categorised as cyborgs.
In Philosophy, questions or issues that are yet to be comprehensively resolved or understood are referred to as Problems of Philosophy; key among them is the mind/body problem and the related concept of disembodied existence. Philosophers have long contemplated the relationship between the body and mind; is the mind an autonomous entity or is it predicated on physical processes of the body, like the brain? This is both a metaphysical and scientific question, because both fields generate strong responses to this question, which obscures the final answer further and leads to even more intense debate.
The year 2004 heralded the beginning of the golden age of the internet, and software begun to emerge as a premier form of intelligence, with the rapid advancements witnessed from this period meaning companies needed less hardware to execute tasks. New media is a good example of this, as social media algorithms (through cybernetics) act like a hive mind to generate an impressive degree of collective intelligence, geared to meet certain pre-set goals for their respective companies. What does this mean for the mind/body problem? If we are to believe that the mind is powered by physical processes much like a computer, then we can safely assert that intelligence is no longer the preserve of organic matter like the brain, and can now also be definitively generated from synthetic material (hardware). As creators of A.I. should this affect how we view our own inherent humanity since intelligence is steadily decreasing in significance as a differentiating marker? This line of inquiry would still bring us back firmly to Post-humanism.
They say the first thought that we have about something basically arises from conditioning, thus we should always strive to have ‘second thoughts’ that are much more balanced and objective, while isolating our biases and fear towards said thing. And so it is with technology, where mindfulness must begin with its creators, so that trust in technology can trickle down to its users.